Before the pandemic, we used to operate a brick-and-mortar learning centre in Toronto. Students would patiently wait for their lessons in the designated waiting area. I couldn’t help but notice that an increasing number of students were absorbed in their smartphones as opposed to engaging in conversation with one another. Even friends sitting next to each other would be preoccupied with their devices, playing games or watching YouTube videos, instead of interacting with each other.
With the rapid growth and ever-increasing popularity of social media, its influence on various aspects of life has become a topic of significant interest and debate. In particular, the impact of social media on children’s academic performance has come under examination by educators, researchers, parents, and policymakers alike. Do smartphones and social media affect children’s academic performance? If so, how? We’ll examine these questions in this article.
What does the research say about the effect of social media and smartphone?
Research on the effects of social media and smartphones on children’s academic performance has produced mixed findings. Some argue that these technologies can offer educational advantages when used responsibly, as they allow students to access valuable resources, participate in online discussions, collaborate with their peers, and communicate with their teachers.
The internet and smartphones provide students with tools to quickly access information and utilize apps that can enhance their learning experience. For instance, tools like Desmos.com enable students to easily visualize even the most intricate graphs, thereby aiding in their comprehension of math concepts. Moreover, social media can serve as a platform for students to discuss academic matters. A 2018 study by Reich et al. revealed that students who engaged in online discussions with their peers demonstrated improved collaboration skills and better academic outcomes compared to those who did not participate.
However, many studies suggest that excessive use of social media and smartphone in general can negatively impact academic performance.
Excessive usage of internet slows down brain growth
Dr. Sakaki and Dr. Kawashima, cognitive scientists at Tohoku University in Japan, presented alarming research findings in their book, “Smartphone Breaks Down the Educational Power.” In their study, they surveyed the internet usage of 11-year-olds and categorized the results into seven groups: 1. Without devices that can access the internet, 2. No internet usage, 3. Rarely using the internet, 4. Using the internet one day a week, 5. Using the internet two to three days a week, 6. Using the internet four to five days a week, and 7. Daily internet usage.
The researchers assessed the children’s language development and conducted MRI scans of their brains at age 11, and repeated these measurements over the next three years. They found that those who used the internet most frequently demonstrated the lowest language development and, more importantly, detrimental effects on the development of grey matter in the brain areas responsible for memory, learning, and language. In other words, constant and frequent internet usage slowed down brain development.
Another interesting discovery was that children who used smartphones for at least three hours per day experienced lower academic achievement, even if they spent more time to study than children who didn’t spend as much time on their phones. The researchers examined the number of hours these children spent studying and sleeping each night. The children who used smartphones for three hours or more daily had lower grades compared to those who spent less time on smartphones, even when the amount of sleep and study hours were similar.
Frequent usage of social media leads to lower academic performance
Some research indicates that increased time spent on social media can lead to poorer homework completion rates, lower test scores, and lower overall grades. Karpinski found that students who used social media more frequently reported lower academic performance scores compared to their peers who used it less often.
Social media can be a significant distraction for students. When a student is attempting to study, notifications from platforms such as Instagram or Facebook can disrupt their concentration. They may take a break from studying to check their Instagram account, post a few photos, and comment on their friends’ content. As a result, a student might be on their desk for one hour, appearing to be studying, but in fact, they might be using social media for half of that time.
Social media may lower children’s self-esteem
Some children might be prone to developing lower self-esteem due to their use of social media. For instance, children who frequently respond to other people’s posts without receiving “likes” in return, particularly girls, may experience a decrease in self-esteem. Additionally, children who crave online popularity because they see other more popular peers on social media might also suffer from lower self-esteem. As adults, many of us are aware that social media can occasionally have a detrimental effect on our self-image. We may feel insecure about ourselves when we see others who appear more attractive, enjoy greater popularity, or have more financial resources. So, it is understandable that some children may experience similar feelings when they constantly compare themselves with others and are getting evaluated by their peers in the form of “likes” and “mentions”.
It is well-established that self-esteem plays a crucial role in academic performance. Children who have confidence in themselves generally perform better in school. On the other hand, those with low self-esteem may lack motivation to study because they believe they cannot succeed in school, regardless of their efforts. When confronted with challenges, children with low self-esteem tend to give up quickly. Furthermore, the constant comparison and peer evaluation on social media may cause children to become more focused on their appearance and social status rather than their education. This further leads to a diminished motivation or attention for their studies.
Why social media and smartphone usage may affect academic performance
There are several factors that contribute to the influence of social media and smartphone usage on children’s academic performance.
- Cognitive Development: As mentioned, the usage of smartphones and the internet, in particular, may have an adverse effect on the brain development of children. When the internet is used too frequently, children may experience slower growth in areas of the brain responsible for memory and language.
- Distraction: Social media often serves as a source of distraction, making it difficult for children to focus on their studies. Access to a multitude of applications, notifications, and messages can interrupt study sessions and detract from a child’s ability to concentrate on their academic work.
- Procrastination: Social media platforms offer a myriad of content designed to capture the attention and interest of users. Students can easily fall into cycles of procrastination, spending a big chunk of time on social media while neglecting their academic responsibilities.
- Sleep deprivation: According to a study by Levenson et al., adolescents who spend more time on social media are more likely to experience sleep disturbances, which can result in difficulties with academic performance. Lack of adequate sleep can lead to reduced attention, cognitive functioning, and memory, all of which are critical components of effective learning.
- Depression and mental health: Social media usage can contribute to increased risk of mental health issues such as depression. A 2017 study by Twenge et al. found that teens who spent more time in social media were more likely to report mental health issues. Another researcher notes that quality of social media use, rather than frequency, may be responsible for increased depressive symptoms among adolescents.
- Lower self-esteem: Frequent social media usage may lower the self-esteem of children. This is because children may compare themselves against their peers who are “better” than them, and they may become overly sensitive to peer evaluation on social media.
Maximizing the benefits and reducing the risks of social media for academic performance
How can parents ensure that their child uses their smartphone and interacts with social media in a healthy manner? How can they make certain that social media usage doesn’t hinder their child’s academic performance? Let’s explore several strategies that can be implemented.
Encourage children to allocate specific times for social media use, rather than allowing them to use social media whenever they feel like. Promote a balanced approach that allows for adequate time for their academic work.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has released a set of guidelines for media use based on a child’s developmental stage. For example, for children 18 months to 24 months, parents should choose high-quality programming and watch with their children. If your child is between the age of 2 and 5, limit screen time to one hour per day of high-quality programming. For children 6 and up, establish consistent limits on the time spent using media and the types of media. Before bedtime, limit exposure to screens for up to one hour.
Parents should model healthy media usage so their children can follow by example. For example, avoid using social media while eating or in bed. Set aside a specific time to use social media. Setting an example can help children develop healthy media habits. It can also help children learn to balance their time between academic work and social media use.
Parents and guardians should monitor their child’s social media usage. When parents are aware of how much time their child is using their smartphone, they can enforce rules about how much screen time their children can have. In addition, it is important for parents to be aware of the risks associated with social media use and to take steps to protect their children. For example, parents can monitor their child’s social media accounts and set privacy settings to limit who can see their child’s posts. Parents can also talk to their child about the importance of not sharing personal information online and the risks associated with cyberbullying.
View the media together
One way parents can help their child develop healthy social media and smartphone usage is by viewing the media together. Co-viewing media with your child can help them learn, be creative, and share these experiences with your family. Guiding your child’s attention while watching a video or playing a game can increase the impact of these interactions. You can home in on new vocabulary or concepts, restate phrases, or use open-ended questions to extend children’s learning or make connections to things they already know.
Co-viewing media can also promote bonding and empathy between parents and children. Research shows that watching TV and movies with your kids has a range of positive effects. It can support early literacy skills, boost empathy, and even help manage aggression after exposure to violent media.
Educate on digital literacy
Digital literacy refers to the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that allow children to be both safe and empowered in an increasingly digital world. Children with strong digital literacy skills may be less likely to develop negative self-esteem because of social media. According to a study conducted by Harvard University, teens who have strong digital literacy skills are better able to understand social media posts and are less likely to be negatively impacted by them.
Parents can help their child develop digital literacy by finding resources online that can help their child learn about digital literacy. Also, parents can monitor their child’s use of technology and be a good role model in technology use in order to help their child develop healthy digital habits. In addition, parents can teach their child how to stay safe online and how to use social media in a healthy manner while avoiding pitfalls associated with social media use.
In conclusion, social media and smartphone usage, if excessive, can have negative effects on children’s academic performance. Specifically, they can affect the child’s brain development and self-esteem. By understanding the underlying factors and implementing strategies to mitigate potential risks, we can help children develop healthy relationship with technology while safeguarding their academic welfare.
Richard Zhang, M.Ed., is an educator and a software developer with a Masters degree in education from University of Toronto and an immense passion for education and learning. Until the pandemic, Richard owned an award-winning learning centre in Toronto. For 15 years, he has taught and mentored hundreds of elementary, middle school, and high school students succeed in academics. He is also an app developer specializing in web and mobile application in educational and business sectors.