How Smartphones Create Distractions in the Classroom

Boys in a classroom using smartphones


Most high-school and even middle-school teachers are in a constant battle with smartphones and other devices for attention in the classroom. Students are finding ways to text, surf the web, and post on social media, all while the teacher is instructing. They hide their devices in their lap, a sweatshirt pocket, or even in an open pocket of their backpack. The end result is that they are only half-present in the classroom for much of the time. 


A new study found that college students also are spending more class time than ever using their smartphones and other devices. In fact, the study found that students check their phones and other devices more than 11 times a day on average. And, it is not just a quick glance to see if someone is trying to reach them. Instead, they are spending up to 20% of their classroom time texting, emailing, surfing the web, checking social media, and even playing games.

They clearly don't see a problem with these behaviors. Nearly 30% of the students said they could use their digital devices without distracting from their learning. More than a quarter of them said it was their choice if they wanted to use a smartphone or other device while class was taking place. 

Likewise, many students surveyed felt the benefits of using digital devices for non-class purposes outweighed any distractions they caused in the classroom. More than 11% of those surveyed felt that they could not stop themselves from using their devices.

Smartphone Use and Lower Grades

While there is little argument that smartphones and other devices can be distracting for students in classrooms, there is new research that shows using electronic devices in the classroom can even lower students' grades.

In a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology researchers found that of the 118 upper-level college students studied, the students with laptops and cell phones open for non-classroom purposes scored half a letter grade lower on exams.

This grade could be the difference between passing and failing for some students. Even students who were enrolled in the same class as the device-users scored lower even though they did use a device during class. The researchers speculate that this was likely due to the surrounding distractions from others using electronic devices. 

It's also important to note that while having a device did not lower comprehension scores within the lecture, it did lower the end of the term exam by as much as 5% or half a grade. These findings demonstrate that the main effect of divided attention in the classroom is on long-term retention.

Meanwhile, another study conducted by Stanford University shows that intense multitasking decreases the efficiency of completing a given task. The conclusion here is that smartphones and other electronic devices can reduce a student's ability to think to their full potential.

Why Distraction Impacts Learning

According to the book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, students become distracted when they are pursuing a goal that really matters and something blocks their efforts to achieve it. This is what happens when technology is used in the classroom.

The students' attention is divided between two tasks—what the teacher is trying to teach and what the student is trying to do on the digital device. The result is that fewer items regarding those two tasks will be able to be recalled or retained. 

Another way to understand distraction is to look at the research conducted by neuroscientist Adam Aron of the University of California San Diego and postdoctoral scholar Jan Wessel. They found that the brain system that is involved in interrupting or stopping movement in our bodies also interrupts cognition.

This area of the brain is engaged when you make an abrupt stop in action due to an unexpected event like a text message or a notification, clears out what you were thinking (or what the teacher was teaching). This function of the brain used to serve an important role when humans were faced with danger and needed to focus on what was happening at that moment. But with all the chirps and chimes of technology, this brain function can have a negative impact. 


Most educators agree that the answer is not banning devices from the classroom. Not only is a technology ban counterintuitive to the world we live in, but it also could inadvertently single out students with accommodations that need those devices to participate in class. 

Instead, teachers, as well as students, need to change their practices. Teachers need to adapt to the reality that smartphones and other devices are here to stay. Likewise, they need to realize that the number one reason students gave for turning on their devices in class was boredom.

Meanwhile, students need to recognize that reaching for their smartphone during class will impact their overall learning. And while they may still be able to pass tests that are given right away, when it comes time for final exams or standardized tests, they will not retain as much information as they would have if they had never turned on their smartphone in class. Consequently, students need to learn how to self-regulate when it comes to using technology in the classroom. 

A Word From Verywell

If you have a student with smartphone addiction, you may want to have a discussion about how cell phone use in the classroom could be impacting their grades. Additionally, you may also want to establish some ground rules regarding technology use. By starting early, you can help instill good self-regulation skills in your teens so that when they are freshmen in college they will be less tempted to pull out their cell phones when a lecture gets boring.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. McCoy BR. Digital distractions in the classroom phase ii: Student classroom use of digital devices for non-class related purposes. J Media Educ. 2016;7(1):5-32.

  2. Glass AL, Kang M. Dividing attention in the classroom reduces exam performanceEduc Psychol. 2019;39(3):395-408.  doi:10.1080/01443410.2018.1489046

  3. Ophir E, Nass C, Wagner AD. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2009;106(37):15583-15587. doi:10.1073/pnas.0903620106

  4. Gazzalay A, Rosen LD. The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 2016.

  5. Wessel JR, Jenkinson N, Brittain JS, Voets SH, Aziz TZ, Aron AR. Surprise disrupts cognition via a fronto-basal ganglia suppressive mechanism. Nat Commun. 2016;7:11195. doi:10.1038/ncomms11195

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By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.