Study reveals impact of internet use on student test scores

Study reveals impact of internet use on student test scores

Mobile internet access is hurting student test scores, according to a recent study.

The research paper, titled '3G Internet and Human Capital Development', shows that test score declines are most significant among female students, students whose parents have less education and those in lower-income countries. These groups also exhibit the largest increases in daily internet browsing following the introduction of 3G networks.

Study co-authors, University of Auckland economics lecturer Sam Stemper and Harvard PhD candidate Ronak Jain, utilised test score data from over two million students across 82 countries, including Australia, through the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

They also leveraged the staggered rollout of 3G technology to investigate the impact of mobile internet access on student academic performance over nearly two decades from 2000 to 2018.

By linking 3G mobile network data to students' test scores, they discovered that having access to mobile internet leads to more young people owning smartphones and using the internet. In turn, this is linked to lower test scores in all PISA subjects.

“Our research sets the stage for a more in-depth exploration of how internet usage has become ingrained in students' lives, impacting not only their academic pursuits but also various other aspects,” Jain said.

To gain insights into students' engagement, social connectedness and mental wellbeing within the school context, the researchers look at homework hours, absenteeism, ease of making friends, sense of belonging and self-efficacy.

"We find evidence that measures of social connectedness and mental health—namely, ease of making friends and feeling a sense of belonging—worsen after the arrival of 3G," Dr Stemper – who controlled for data on student gender, school type, age, immigration status and parental education – said.

They also harness student responses to the Information Communication Technology questionnaire, which is optional among countries participating in PISA. It includes questions about students' technology use, digital competencies, and attitudes toward information and communication technologies.

Among students interviewed in 2012, 2015 and 2018, 90 percent had a smartphone at home, and the average daily number of minutes spent online was 250 - about four hours.

“After the arrival of 3G coverage, students spend an additional 40 minutes on the internet every day. In turn, 3G expansion is associated with large declines in student test score performance across all subjects,” Stemper said.

Results from the study also suggest that increased 3G coverage is associated with increases in homework time of roughly 30 minutes to one hour per week.

"This is surprising, given that it runs contrary to the effects on test scores. However, we do see that students are also more likely to have skipped school days, so part of the increase in homework hours could simply reflect students trying to compensate for missed days,” Stemper said.

PISA evaluates the performance of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics and science, assessing both the relative and absolute levels of skill development across regions and time. Dr Stemper says the data offers a rich and comprehensive source of information, which enabled him and Jain to explore the relationship between 3G internet use, technology access and student test scores.

"The information contained in PISA allows us to explore the influence of mobile internet access at a pivotal and significant stage in students' development," he said.

“I think education policy has a role to play in regulating the use of phones in schools, but it goes far beyond that in terms of how we're thinking about our focus and attention in other areas. All of us have changed the way we spend time - whether we’re scrolling during dinner or while watching TV, access to high-speed mobile internet is affecting every element of our lives.”

This story originally appeared as a media release from the University of Auckland.