Study probes cell phone use among Grade 5 students

Education researcher David Chorney says it’s important to set boundaries with young cell phone users to mitigate negative impacts later on

Scott Lingley - 25 March 2024

Does a Grade 5 student really need their own cell phone? It’s a question which education researcher David Chorney was surprised to find that no one was really asking. So he decided to start by asking the students themselves: how many of them have their own phones and how are they using them both in and outside of school?

Chorney’s study, which surveyed 264 Grade 5 students across the Edmonton Catholic Schools division, earned a grant from the Alberta Advisory Committee for Educational Studies (AACES), and is among the research to be presented at Celebrating Socially Transformative Research and Teaching on Thursday, March 28.

“I think if people understand the impact that these devices have on kids—which are mostly in my opinion negative for this age group—more can and should be done to think about the necessity of a 10 or 11 year old having a cell phone,” Chorney said.

As it is, 54 per cent of survey respondents said they had their own cell phone, with half of the remaining respondents saying they expected to get a cell phone within a year. Chorney says he was surprised to find out how many students said they’d gotten their first cell phones as early as Grade 2 or 3.

And while the ostensible reason for having a cell phone was keeping in contact with their parents, using the phone to take and make calls was not among the top reasons students gave for having a cell phone, which centred on playing games and participating in social media. Allowing these kinds of distractions into the classroom at a relatively young age sets the stage for problematic use down the road, Chorney says.

“As the kids get older, a higher percentage of kids have cell phones, a higher percentage of the kids have data, a higher percentage have access to their phone 24-7, it’s with them constantly, and this leads to potential issues in school, where they’re distracted, where they don’t learn to socialize,” Chorney said. “We want kids focused and on-task in the classroom, so when they leave school we don’t see some of these lingering, long-term effects because of these devices.”

Despite his reservations about younger people having cell phones, Chorney says barring cell phone use in schools is not the answer.

“Being a former teacher myself, I can see both sides of it. An outright ban could work, but it would take a lot of effort, a lot of undue effort in my opinion, a fight with the kids, with their parents. I think we can find a middle ground.”

He hopes his study can inform the wider conversation about setting constructive boundaries around digital devices in schools and at home—a conversation that should include teachers, school administrators, parents and the young people themselves.

“If teachers want to integrate cell phones into their pedagogical practices, they will. Hopefully they’ve thought it all through and asked if this is the best utilization of the technology for these assignments,” Chorney said. “Beyond that, kids are at home most of the time and it’s important for parents to know the findings of this work, and get more attuned to what their kids are doing with their phones.”

In the meantime, Chorney says sharing results from the study has sparked thought-provoking conversations among the preservice teachers in the undergraduate courses he teaches.

“I share these findings with my undergrads who are going to be in schools and they are going to be dealing with kids of the current generation who have grown up with a cell phone,” he said. “What is their response going to be when their students have their cell phones out in the classroom or in the gymnasium environment?”

Chorney notes that data for this study was gathered prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It would be interesting to give these same survey questions to the Grade 5 students of today and see how different the responses are to those we got before the pandemic,” he says.

The Faculty of Education’s Celebrating Socially Transformative Research and Teaching event, featuring more than 60 research presentations, as well as research and teaching awards, takes place Thursday, March 28 from 2 - 5 p.m. in the 4th floor lounge of Education Centre North.