The dark side of using ICTs in education

Much evidence has been adduced to suggest that ICTs enhance not only the quantity but also the quality of education and learning; those selling such technologies have skilfully created an atmosphere where it is usually unquestioningly assumed that ICTs do indeed have a beneficial impact.  However, the opportunity to undertake research recently for UNICEF on the future of ICT use in education provided me with the chance to explore some of the darker aspects of such use, and I summarise my thoughts here to encourage a more balanced approach to discussions about ICTs and education.

In recent years there has been an increasing amount of evidence that sheds doubt on the claimed benefits of ICTs for education, and also highlights their limitations and dangers (see for example UNICEF’s recent report on Children in a Digital World).  Four themes are particularly pertinent:

  • doubts about the overall efficacy of ICTs in enhancing learning;
  • the distractions that they provide;
  • their use for behaviours intended to harm children; and
  • the increasingly blurred interface that they create between humans and machines

Do ICTs necessarily improve learning outcomes?

One of the first major studies to examine the overall impact of ICTs on learning outcomes was an OECD report in 2012 that concluded that “Overall, the results of the estimates presented in this report point to a generalized negative correlation between the use of ICT (in terms of either intensity or deviations from the mean) and PISA test scores”. The authors were very cautious about their findings, and PISA scores are only one measure of learning, albeit a one that many governments treat very seriously.

More recently, the OECD has produced a comprehensive report on Students, Computers and Learning, that also questions the overall impact that ICTs have on learning.  This shows that the exposure of children to computers in schools varies considerably between countries and within countries.  Most significantly, though, it concludes that the use of computers does not seem to be an important factor in explaining the variation in student performance in mathematics, reading or science as reflected in the PISA scores.  The report concludes (p.15) cautiously that “the connections among students, computers and learning are neither simple nor hard-wired; and the real contributions ICT can make to teaching and learning have yet to be fully realised and exploited”.

One important conclusion from this and associated research is that if poorer countries outside the OECD invest substantially in the use of ICTs in schools there is no guarantee that it will improve traditionally defined learning outcomes.  Moreover, it seems evident that ICTs by themselves do not necessarily have a clear and positive impact on learning outcomes.

Other research has gone further and shown that many educational skills, especially relating to memory, are not as good when using ICTs as when using more traditional methods.  Kirschner and Neelan have thus reported that handwritten notes are much more effective for learning than those made using a digital device, and Mangen et al. have also shown that students who read texts in print score significantly better in reading comprehension than do those who read them digitally.  Much more research is needed about the impact of different methods, particularly with and without ICTs, on the learning achievements of children.

Mobiles as distractions

A decade ago, in the early days of mobile devices, it was often argued that bring-your-own devices could be a means of enabling schools to introduce ICTs without having to expend large amounts on hardware. Such schemes have been widely criticised because of the inequalities that they can perpetuate, but an increasing amount of evidence is available to suggest that the use of mobile devices in classrooms also has a negative impact on children’s learning, especially because of the distractions that they cause.  Much of the opposition to mobiles in classrooms comes from frustrated teachers and parents, and finds its expression in popular news media.  Headlines in mainstream media such as “Schools ponder classroom ban on ‘distracting’ mobile phones” (The Times) are increasingly common. This is closely related to concerns about the digital distractions that are now seen as harming labour productivity later in life.

There is a growing body of research that supports such general concerns.  In a ground-breaking study, Kuznekoff and Titsworth, for example, have shown in a small-scale study that university “Students who were not using their mobile phones wrote down 62% more information in their notes, took more detailed notes, were able to recall more detailed information from the lecture, and scored a full letter grade and a half higher on a multiple choice test than those students who were actively using their mobile phones”. Likewise, in a survey of schools in four English cities, Beland and Murphy have shown convincingly that student performance in high stakes exams significantly increases after mobile ‘phones have been banned, and the these increases in performance are generally driven by the lowest-achieving pupils.  As a result, they suggest that restricting mobile phone use in schools can be a low-cost way to reduce overall educational inequalities.

In the light of such general concerns, several countries have sought to prohibit the use of mobiles in schools.  In much of China, secondary pupils in boarding schools are only permitted to use their ‘phones for short periods each day, and they are not allowed to use them in classes.  Likewise, a decision by the French government to ban mobile ‘phones in school from September 2018 has received widespread publicity.  Reasons for the ban include a general concern about the health implications of children regularly using ‘phones before the age of 7, about the desirability of them physically playing in breaks rather than just being on their devices, and the perception that they cause distraction during lessons.  It is salient to note that attempts to introduce a similar ban in New York City in 2006 largely failed, and it was lifted in 2015.

The dark side of digital devices: addiction, bullying and harassment

UNICEF’s important review Children in a Digital World, highlights three forms of digital risk to children: content, contact, and conduct.  In particular, it emphasises the threats of cyberbullying, online child sex abuse and exploitation.

In most instances, when children use ICTs in schools they are usually subject to some kind of control or supervision.  However, when they are outside school, they are very much freer to use such technologies, despite the potential control measures that some parents seek to impose.  Hence, it is very easy for children to be subject to abuse or harassment from their peers and others once they have left the confines of their schools.  This raises important questions about the relative balance of responsibility between schools and parents in helping children grow up safely in a digital world.

In all uses of ICTs in education, it is essential that the highest priority should be given by schools to:

  • The secure management of children’s data;
  • Digital relationships between teachers and pupils, especially on social media;
  • Behaviours of children online, especially to one another; and
  • The potential for external individuals or organisations to influence children in their care.

Above all, though, it is essential that schools provide extensive training for children in the wise use of digital technologies, covering not only the above  requirements but also issues around critical thinking relating to information on the internet, the use of search engines, social media, privacy, and all aspects of their interface with ICTs.  These need to be balanced, and stress both the positive potential of ICTs alongside their dangers and threats.  Schools cannot do this alone, and there needs to be extensive collaboration between governments, companies, civil society, and parents, but schools are very well-placed to be the central point through which such education and training are provided.

Increasingly, national governments are providing regulations as well as guidance for schools about keeping children safe online at schools and at home.  The UK, for example, announced new measures to tackle this in 2015, requiring all schools to have in place filters and monitoring systems to prevent access to potential harmful material, and to ensure that children are taught about online safeguarding.  Many poorer countries, though, do not have such systematic regulations in place, and there is an urgent need for all governments to create systems of support for schools to help them share good practices relating to child online protection.  It is also important that examples of good practice are widely shared, and sources such as those provided by the European Commission’s Better Internet for Kids service platform, and the ITU’s guidelines on child online protection should be more widely known and acted upon.

Globally, there is insufficient awareness of the significance of many of these issues (see for example the work of the UK-based Internet Watch Foundation).  Whilst overt bullying, harassment and exploitation are becoming increasingly discussed, insufficient attention has been paid until recently on the rising impact of digital addiction on children.  South Korea, for example, sees Internet addiction as a national health crisis, with there being an estimated 2 million addicts, most of whom are children or young adults.  It is estimated that one in ten South Korean children is a digital addict and there is increasing evidence that excessive screen time is damaging developing brains.

Recent warnings in the UK likewise highlight the addictive dangers of giving children smartphones, with a third of children between 12 and 15 admitting that they have difficulty balancing their use of smartphones with other aspects of their life. A particularly worrying aspect of this addiction is the normalisation of sexting, whereby young children are convinced into believing that sending nude pictures of themselves us completely normal.  One survey reported in 2017 has suggested that around two-thirds of primary teachers said they were aware of pupils sharing inappropriate sexual material.

Responsibility for this addiction, and how best to deal with it, are topics that require detailed consideration by all those interested in education.  The design of social media platforms is thus increasingly being seen as problematic, and gives rise to considerable debate.  It has, for example, been claimed that Facebook was explicitly designed as an addictive form of social media, which exploits a vulnerability in human psychology through its social-validation feedback loop.  Others, though, see the value that such social media platforms offer, and suggest that only a relatively few people become seriously addicted to it.  Most recently, following the launch of Messenger Kids for children under 13, a group of 100 leading academics, practitioners and organisations have written an open letter to Facebook claiming that young children are not ready to have social media accounts, that it will increase the amount of time young children spend with digital devices, and that the app’s overall impact on families will be negative.

Moreover, there is also growing evidence that the recent rise in depression amongst people born after 1995 in the richer countries of the world, and especially the USA, can be directly linked to the dramatic increase in smartphone use since 2012.  Twenge, for example, has found that teens who spent more than 5 hours a day online were 761% more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor than were those who spent only an hour a day online.

Another general issue that requires further discussion is the use of children’s data by companies providing educational services.  All data are potentially hackable, and school generated data are often seen as being particularly vulnerable because of lax cybersecurity.  In 2017, high profile hacks in school systems across the USA brought the ease of this, as well as the damage that it could cause, to public awareness. UK school systems have also been targeted with relatively simple scams that defraud them of large sums of money. More worrying is the vast amount of data that governments and companies, such as ClassDojo, gather on a regular basis through digital educational systems and platforms, especially relating to examination performance and children’s personal backgrounds.

Cyborgs and transhumanism

A final, and much deeper, ethical question that also needs to be considered is the ways through which the use of ICTs in schools may be influencing the long-term relationships between humans and machines.  The notion of cyborgs, organisms that combine organic and biomechatronic parts and have enhanced abilities through the integration of components that rely on feedback systems, has been discussed heatedly since the 1960s. However, the rapidity of recent technological development has meant that some now see all human life as inevitably becoming more entwined with that of machines.  Elon Musk, the serial scientific inventor and business magnate, has thus argued that humans must indeed become cyborgs if they are to stay relevant in a future dominated by artificial intelligence, and he is not alone in his thoughts.  Such life-changing rhetoric requires vociferous challenging by those who do not wish to see such a future, and it is important that there is a balanced and open debate about transhumanism and the desirability of humans becoming cyborgs.

Those with pacemakers, artificial limbs and cochlear implants, are already combinations of machine and humans, and companies such as Calico, a business within the Alphabet group that also owns Google, are already undertaking research that will use technology to enable people to lead much longer and healthier lives.  Those who wear “fitbits” that transmit their bodies’ physical data to companies that then use it to generate revenue from marketing or insurance are already virtually cyborgs.  It will not be long before more people start arguing for humans to be chipped with their digital identities just like their pets, so that they no longer have to have physical biometric identity cards. Transhumanism (also known as H+) is an extreme form of such thinking that seeks to transform humans by using technology to enhance human intellect and physiology.  Companies such as Kernel are seeking to develop a wave of new technologies that will be able to access, read and write from the human brain.  Even if most people reject the extremes of H+, the general argument that ICTs should be used to enhance humans is now becoming much more widely accepted than it was previously.

This has very significant implications for education systems, especially in terms of the ways that humans store and process memory.  Children are increasingly relying on digital memories, especially access to the Internet or the memories on their digital devices.  They are also being encouraged to use their brains for skills other than merely acquiring knowledge, although good traditional education systems were never merely about simple knowledge acquisition as is often claimed.  We know that brains adapt remarkably quickly to their environments, but insufficient research has yet been done on the systematic way through which ICTs are changing brain function.


This is the third in a series of short summaries of aspects of the use of ICTs in children’s education across the world based on my work for UNICEF (the first was on Interesting practices in the use of ICTs for education, and the second was on Why we don’t really know very much about the influence of ICTs on learning and education).  I must stress that these contain my own opinions, and do not in any way reflect official UNICEF policy or practice.  I very much hope that they will be of use and interest to practitioners in the field.  The original report for UNICEF contains a wealth of references upon which the above arguments were based, and will be available should the report be published in full.



1 Comment

Filed under cybersecurity, Education, ICT4D, ICTs, Transhumanism

One response to “The dark side of using ICTs in education

  1. Pingback: UNESCO Chair in ICT4D’s response to the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation call for contributions – UNESCO Chair in ICT4D

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