Smartphone tax on attention

How digital devices can inhibit learning

Hey 👋

Hope your week is going well and you’ve been mulling over screen inferiority implications for your context. This week, we’re looking at the impact of smartphones more generally in school…

Big idea 🍉

Smartphones are an incredible invention. They put a world of information at our fingertips, facilitate communication faster than ever before, and act as a safety net in a variety of stations. It is unsurprising that they’ve become a constant companion for our species, often from an early age.

However, their impact is not all rosy. Mounting evidence suggests that the use of smartphones in schools is associated with:

  • Reduced reaction times, task performance, task enjoyment, retention of learning, and academic outcomes.

  • Increased disruptive behaviour, academic dishonesty, depression, stress, anxiety, (cyber-)bullying, and poor quality sleep.

These effects seem to be most pronounced for students who use smartphones lots outside school, for tasks which are particularly demanding, and for lower-achieving students (which makes the whole thing an equity issue).

And all this arises not only when phones are being used in school, but also when they are switched off and in student pockets 🤯

“If you want someone to pay attention to you... turn into a smartphone.”

— Mokokoma Mokhonoana

One major cause of these effects rests in how phones influence attention. We all have limited attentional capacity, and over time, digital devices—though exposure to information abundance, task switching, and quick interactions driven by immediate rewards—increasingly eat a portion of this precious cognitive resource. In short, they incur a tax on our attention.

The implications of this for schools are reasonably clear. We must resist naive narratives of techno-optimism and instead handle smartphones with caution.

For (most) younger children, it's probably best to limit access entirely. For older children, where schools feel there is a case for building independence or offering family communication, ‘off and away during the day’ can be a helpful mantra. This can be supported with a whole-school policy of ‘see it, hear it, lose it’, together with approaches such as taking phones in at the start of the day, providing security pouches, or having dedicated times and places where students can use their phones for emergencies.

The issue is so significant that it may well soon be out of our hands. The Netherlands are planning to ban smartphones, tablets, and smartwatches later this year (except for digital skills classes and students with special needs), and Finland, France, and the UK considering similar moves.

Challenge → What is the smartphone policy at your school? In your class? Could it be further optimised for student learning and wellbeing?


• Smartphones are an incredible invention, but they tend to have a negative impact on student behaviour, learning, and wellbeing in school.

• A big cause of these issues is the ‘attentional tax’ that smartphones incur as a result of their design.

• Schools should probably explore restricted access for students.

Little links 🥕

Have a super weekend when you get there.

Peps 👊

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