Mobile phones have become ubiquitous
in Africa. Among younger users, basic phones are most common. But more
pupils are accessing smartphones that can connect to the internet – and
taking them along to school.
Phones are often used in school whether they’re allowed or not.
Although they can enable valuable access to information, they also bring
new responsibilities and dangers. It’s remarkably common for classes to
be interrupted by both pupils’ and teachers’ phones. Access to
pornography as well as bullying and harassment through phones is widely
We have conducted a study
of young people’s mobile phone use in Ghana, Malawi and South Africa.
Our findings emphasise the central place that mobile phones occupy in
many young people’s lives. Before the mobile phone arrived in Africa,
few people had access to landlines. The mobile phone represents far more of a communication revolution in Africa than in richer countries.
Researching phone stories
The study, involving a group of university researchers from the UK
and Africa, was funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council
and Department for International Development. It covers many aspects of
young people’s phone use, from generational relations to job searches
and health advice. Use in school has emerged as a leading issue, echoing
concerns around the world.
We conducted more than 1,500 face-to-face interviews and focus groups
with young people, teachers, parents and key community members across
24 locations – eight in each country. These varied from poor city
neighbourhoods to remote rural hamlets.
We followed this up with a questionnaire to about 3,000 young people
aged between nine and 18 and 1,500 young people aged between 19 and 25
in the same 24 locations.
The survey of children aged nine to 18 years shows that mobile phone
use is much higher than ownership figures might suggest. Ownership of
phones was lowest in Malawi, the poorest of the three countries. Here
only 8% of children in the survey owned their own phone, compared with
16% in Ghana and 51% in South Africa. Nonetheless, in Malawi 35% of
children said they had used a phone in the week before the survey. In
Ghana the figure was 42% and in South Africa it was 77%. Children often
borrow phones from each other, their parents, other family members and
Children’s use of phones
Some pupils, particularly in South Africa, use their phones to access
sites like Master Maths for help with homework. But the positive
benefits mostly seem to be limited to mundane tasks such as contacting
friends to check on homework or using the phone as a calculator. Much
information from pupils and teachers was more negative: academic
performance affected by disrupted classes – due to teachers as well as
pupils using their phones – disrupted sleep because of cheap night
calls, time wasted on prolonged sessions on social network sites, and
harassment, bullying and pornography.
Class disruption from pupils’ phones used to be mostly from ring
tones when calls were received. Now, for those with smartphones,
messaging on WhatsApp or checking Facebook have become common classroom
activities. Teachers’ phone use in class can be equally disruptive, as
some teachers admitted. A call comes in, or they make a call, and
whether they step outside or take the call in class, the end result is
that the lesson is interrupted and – as more than one told us – “You
forget what you are going to deliver.”
In Malawi, 60% of enrolled pupils said they had seen their teacher
using a phone in lesson time during the week before the survey. The
corresponding figure for Ghana was 66% and for South Africa 88%. Pupils
are rarely given such an opportunity to comment on the behaviour of
those in authority over them but even if not all were truthful, these
figures are of concern. Many head teachers also spoke about the problem
of teacher phone use, saying they found it difficult to regulate.
Other problems include disturbing levels of pupil bullying and
harassment. In the survey of enrolled pupils who use a phone, 16% in
Ghana, 28% in Malawi and 55% in South Africa said they had received
unwanted, unpleasant or upsetting calls or texts. This was almost
equally true for boys and girls.
Distribution and viewing of pornography is also widespread, as older
boys were often willing to disclose. A few – even primary school pupils –
Promoting responsible phone use in school
Many head teachers have asked us how to promote responsible phone use in school. Here are some suggestions:
Pupil phone use: It is important to have a clear
school policy on pupil phone use, to inform parents about this and to
explain the reasoning behind it. If the school has decided to allow
pupils to bring their mobile phone to school – for instance, because of
travel problems – but not to use it in school, then pupils could be
required to put a name tag on their phone and deposit it with a staff
member, using a register, before school begins. In this case parents or
carers must be given a phone number for urgent messages.
If the school allows pupils to use mobile phones in class as
calculators or to access the internet, pupils and their parents could
sign an “acceptable use” agreement each term. This would promote
effective use of class time and their own and other pupils’ safety.
Pupils also need reminders not to publish personal information on the
internet and to tell their teacher, a parent or carer if they access
any information that worries them. Parents must be encouraged to help
their child follow the school’s guidelines. Asking them to sign an
acceptable use agreement together with their children will help.
Teacher phone use: Teachers’ mobile phones should be
switched off and left in a safe place during lesson times. If teachers
are using their phones when pupils are banned from doing so, pupils may
become resentful. Staff should not contact pupils from their personal
mobile phones or give their mobile phone numbers to pupils or parents.
This would help teachers maintain sound professional practice. Senior Research Fellow, Durham University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.