Mobile phones have come an incredibly long way in the last 30 years. In the 1990s, mobiles were used for making phone calls, sending texts, and playing the odd game of Snake. Today, smartphone technology allows us to browse the internet, stream films and run programmes, all from a small device in the palm of our hands.
Smartphones are now ubiquitous. 99% of young people in the UK between the ages of 16 and 24 own a smartphone(1), which has led to a shift in the way we interact with content – and even each other.
The growing reliance on phones isn’t restricted to younger people. A 2021 global study by 11 anthropologists analysed the use of smartphones in ‘older people’: people who consider themselves neither young nor elderly. The study suggested that smartphone users have become ‘human snails carrying our homes in our pockets’(2), with devices allowing them to stay connected to loved ones, personal, and professional information even when they’re out and about.
With smartphones now such a prominent part of our lives, we look at how they’re transforming the world of education – as well as their potential to influence the way we study in future.
The rise of smartphone technology
Children today are getting more comfortable with technology from an earlier age. Research conducted by Childwise in 2020 showed that 57% of children in the UK have a mobile phone by the time they’re 7 years old.(3) So, what impact does this have on how we consume content?
A 2020 study from Microsoft Corp shows that the average attention span is now 8 seconds – down from 12 seconds in the year 2000.(4) One of the biggest reasons for this is the overwhelming amount of information that’s ever-present, including time-restricted content that’s available through apps such as Instagram or Snapchat. The average British adult also checks their smartphone every 12 minutes of the waking day(5), making it harder to concentrate on one thing for too long.
Mobile devices are also becoming embedded in our approach to studying. A 2018 survey by Learning House and Aslanian Market Research showed that nearly 80% of the students they surveyed complete some, if not all, of their course work using a mobile phone. Over 50% of respondents said they used their smartphones to communicate with professors and access course material, while over 40% used their phones to do research and get onto their learning management system.(6)
With mobile phones becoming such an important tool for studying, what impact does this have on how our brains process and memorise information?
Changing the way our brains work and interpret content
In 2011, researchers published results of experiments that showed that when people expect to have access to the internet later, they make less effort to remember things.(7) With mobile phones offering internet access no matter where you are, they’ve taken on the role of memory for anything from phone numbers through to recipes and even important facts needed for assignments and exams.
There’s also evidence that having all this information at our fingertips has changed long-established ways of human thinking. Whereas in the past there were times for us to be alone with our thoughts, today it’s much harder to practice more attentive types of thinking such as contemplative or reflective thought – important skills for encouraging higher-order thinking and self-awareness.
Author Nicholas Carr, whose books focus on technology, culture and economics says this means “it’s very hard to translate information into rich, highly connected memories that ultimately make us smart and intelligent.”(8)
Embracing technology to encourage learning
With technology shaping the way we take in and interpret information, more companies across the world are developing apps, devices and tools that lean into this shift. For instance, many study resources now include QR codes that can be scanned by mobile phones. These allow students to access more study materials, including interactive content.
Another example of this is AI-powered research tools such as Scholarcy. Created as a way for busy students and researchers to keep on top of their reading, Scholarcy breaks long and complex articles, reports and book chapters into bite-sized summaries which help users quickly see how relevant the text is to their studies and make it easier to read long-form content on smartphones.
Other developers have created specific mobile apps to allow people to learn on the go. That means that students can learn a language with Duolingo’s short lessons or learn the basics of coding with Mimo’s interactive bite-sized exercises while on the train to work, cooking, or even watching TV.
There’s plenty of scope for this to evolve in the future, too. A new app from company EY shows the potential: they’ve recently launched a free app which aims to inspire girls to pursue STEM careers. Girls between the ages of 13 and 18 can complete digital activities, watch short videos, and carry out real-world experiments at their own pace, all while working towards incentives such as work shadowing women who have successful careers in various STEM fields.
The rise of smartphone technology has led to an enormous shift in the way our brains consume content. Companies across the world have embraced this change, with an increasing number of apps, tools and content being created to support students’ reduced attention span and need for engaging, on-the-go learning. As author Tony Bingham wrote: “mobile sets learning free, and we can now learn virtually anything, anywhere and anytime—and that’s amazing.”(9)
 Statista, UK: smartphone ownership by age from 2012-2021. [online] Available at: <https://www.statista.com/statistics/271851/smartphone-owners-in-the-united-kingdom-uk-by-age/> [Accessed: 21 February 2022]
 The Guardian, Smartphone is now ‘the place where we live’, anthropologists say. [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/may/10/smartphone-is-now-the-place-where-we-live-anthropologists-say> [Accessed 28 February 2022]
 YouGov, 2020. By the age of seven, 53% of the children in the UK own a mobile phone [online] Available at: <https://yougov.co.uk/topics/resources/articles-reports/2020/01/31/age-seven-53-children-uk-own-mobile-phone> [Accessed: 21 February 2022]
 Muckrack, 2020. How declining attention spans impact your social media. [online] Available at: <https://muckrack.com/blog/2020/07/14/how-declining-attention-spans-impact-your-social-media#:~:text=What%20is%20the%20reason%20for,the%20notoriously%20ill%2Dfocused%20goldfish!> [Accessed: 28 February 2022]
 Huffington Post, 2018. [online] Available at: <https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/brits-now-check-their-mobile-phones-every-12-minutes_uk_5b62bf60e4b0b15aba9fe3cb> [Accessed: 28 February 2022]
 Inside Higher Ed, 2019. ‘Students Are Using Mobile Even If You Aren’t’. [online] Available at: <https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2019/02/27/mobile-devices-transform-classroom-experiences-and> [Accessed: 24 February 2022]
 ScienceNews, 2017. Smartphones may be changing the way we think. [online ]Available at: <https://www.sciencenews.org/article/smartphones-may-be-changing-way-we-think> [Accessed: 23 February 2022]
 NBC News, 2017. Your Smartphone Is Changing the Human Race in Surprising Ways. [online] Available at: <https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/the-big-questions/your-smartphone-may-actually-be-changing-human-race-n743866> [Accessed: 21 February 2022]
 Cornerstone University, 2018. Ten Ways Your Smartphone Can Help You Learn. [online] Available at: <https://www.cornerstone.edu/blog-post/ten-ways-your-smartphone-can-help-you-learn/> [Accessed: 28 February 2022]