Mobile Game Usage Shows Remote Learning Adversely Impacts Low Income Students

By Estelle Laziuk, Flurry Analyst

The spread of Coronavirus in the U.S. has not only threatened the economy, but also the American educational system. Over the course of 2020, U.S. schools have radically adapted to meet student needs. For instance, to offset the disruption caused by March school closures, most districts switched to pass-fail grading, with only 23% of districts maintaining the traditional A-F grading scale, according to research from the University of Washington Bothell.

After the summer break, all but four states implemented either hybrid or remote learning models, with some mix of online classes, digital assignments, and reinstated standard grading. At the same time, varied factors at home can create uneven learning experiences for students, such as access to laptops, reliable internet, and parental support to name a few. With some parents working or taking care of siblings, among other factors, would students engage academically? In this report, Flurry measures academic engagement by looking at one of the most common activities that directly competes with classroom and study time —playing mobile games on smartphones.

Flurry Analytics, owned by Verizon Media, is used in over 1 million mobile applications, providing insights from 2 billion mobile devices per month. For this analysis, Flurry curated a sample of game apps. We excluded users located in the four states that required students to physically attend school: Texas, Florida, Iowa and Arkansas. For household income levels, we used U.S. Census Bureau data and then adjusted each state by its cost of living index using data from the Council for Community and Economic Research. Finally, we used the Pew Research Center disposable income definitions for income tiers. Note that our study looks at Gen Z users between the ages of 13 to 24, since we do not collect data for users under the age of 13.

Mobile Game Usage Reveals Academic Engagement

Let’s first look at how Gen Z engagement with school has changed over the course of 2020, using mobile game usage as a signal.


In the chart above, we show the number of daily Gen Z mobile game app sessions from January through October. That’s represented by the entire span of the blue area. Each rise and fall across that topography shows how game usage cycles between weekdays and weekends, with weekend usage spiking. Within the blue area, there are four time periods. The first section is “Normal Learning” during which students physically attended classes before COVID-19. The second section entitled “School Closures” captures the end of the 2019-2020 school year after schools began closing due to the new pandemic. The third section shows the time period during which most schools were on summer break. Finally, the “New Normal Learning” shows the return to school for the 2020-2021 academic year during which the significant majority of schools are teaching by video conference.

Above the blue area chart are three education categories where we combined the middle two sections, as play behavior was very similar across these two middle periods. They go as follows 1) “In-person Learning” the normal way school is attended— and which serves as our baseline, 2) “Interrupted Learning” when students had highly varied demands for attending class and doing schoolwork, or were simply on summer break, 3) “Remote Learning” when the standards for school have returned to normal, except that all but four U.S. states started including remote learning.

The key takeaway is that during Coronavirus, academic engagement has varied considerably depending on whether students were attending school in-person, on summer break or learning remotely, as revealed by mobile game usage.

In the “Normal Learning” part of our chart, take a look at how often students played games when they attended school in-person. This time period has the most distinct cyclicality, with lulls during the week and pronounced peaks on the weekends. Comparing weekday to weekend usage during that period shows that students played games 43% less during the week than on the weekend. In other words, as students engage with school during the week, they typically play games significantly less than on weekends. 

During the period of "School Closures", most students were suddenly at home on school days. Although many schools began to facilitate distance learning, the transition to a different instruction format in times of economic and health crises required a period of adjustment. Survey data shows that by May 7, only 37% of instructors had interactions with the majority of their students at least once per day when teaching remotely. And 71% of instructors shared that they were spending less time on student instruction than before the pandemic. In another survey, 72% of teachers said that pausing formal evaluations and grading made the most sense during this time. We therefore consider this period as "Interrupted Learning". Without at least daily class sessions supervised by the instructor, many students had additional time to fill. Our data indicates that their usage of game apps during school days surged by 46%, reaching similar levels as during the summer break, when game app usage is only 1% lower on weekdays than weekends. In other words, when students did not have at least daily classes supervised by the instructor, either due to school being interrupted or on summer break, students switched to playing games significantly more on weekdays, and as a result engaged less academically. 

Most recently, with the return to school in a remote capacity, daily teaching time supervised by the instructor picked up again. Survey data shows that compared to the Spring 2020 semester, real-time remote instruction this Fall grew from being adopted by 21% to 92% of U.S. school districts. With more class time guided by instructors, game app usage during school days has gradually decreased, which suggests a return to normal academic engagement.

Remote Learning Drives Elevated Gaming

Let's next find out whether Gen Z users engage more with school when it is in-person or remote, using mobile game usage as a signal.

Comparing in-person learning in early Spring to remote learning in early Fall may introduce some seasonal variations in game usage between Spring and Fall semesters that are not due to the shift in instruction type. To better isolate this change, we next compare this year’s Fall 2020, when learning is remote, to the same time period last year in Fall 2019, when learning was conducted in-person. Additionally, in order to factor out the change in users over time, we look at game usage per user, as opposed to usage across all users.


In the chart above, the light blue area shows the number of daily game app sessions per user during Fall 2019, when classes were still held in-person. The bold blue line shows the same metric this Fall 2020, when learning has shifted online. Compared to last year, students have more time to fill, and our data shows that they’re playing games an average of 15% more during school days than last year. In other words, in-person learning curbs smartphone game usage more than remote learning. This suggests that students better engage with school when it is in-person.  

Remote Learning Adversely Impacts Low Income Students

Let’s next look at how academic engagement has changed during Coronavirus by student income level.


In this last chart, we show the change in game usage during school days (Monday - Friday) throughout 2020 by student income level. We represent the upper income level in orange, middle income in grey, and lower income in blue. For this chart, we set usage for each income segment against its respective January baseline.

During the in-person learning time period, all income levels exhibit similar usage. After schools closed in mid-March, all students regardless of their income level increased their usage of game apps, with the largest surge in usage coming from the upper income student segment. During the summer break, only the lower income segment continued to play games at this elevated level, while upper and middle income students decreased their usage. With many parents working from home during weekdays this summer, the upper and middle income students may have benefited from more at-home parental supervision or restrictions on playing games compared to lower income students, whose parents may have been more concerned and affected by the economic downturn.

Most recently, with the return to school remotely, lower income students play games 87% more than in January, while the middle and upper income segments play games only 2% more and 22% less respectively. This suggests that during the pandemic 1) remote learning leaves lower income students behind, who in turn play games during school days more than their peers 2) the lower the student’s household income, the greater the increase in mobile game usage is during remote learning, indicating lower academic engagement. 

Note that during in-person learning in February and March, when class time was the most continuously supervised by the instructor, there was very little disparity in game usage during school across the three income groups. This suggests that more guided and supervised class instruction effectively curbs smartphone game usage across all income levels.

The primary takeaway from this study is that Gen Z mobile game usage has changed considerably during the school year marked by COVID-19. Our data shows that remote learning has adversely impacted student academic engagement, as their game usage during the week has increased by 15% compared to last year. This adverse effect is especially strong for lower income students, who have increased their usage of games by 87% compared to last January. Lastly, we found that during remote learning, the lower the students' household income, the more likely they are to increase their usage of mobile games, and therefore to engage less academically. For more reports covering important trends during the pandemic, subscribe to the Flurry Analytics blog and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.