As Michigan schools ban cellphones, reports surface of ‘talking,’ ‘eye contact’

Forest Hills Central senior Jack Walls on a district cellphone ban: “I think it’s bad. It’s probably good for me, but it’s not what I feel I need.”  (Bridge photo by Ted Roelofs)

ADA TOWNSHIP—Standing outside Forest Hills Central High School in late August, senior Jack Walls admitted he has an issue with his phone.

“I’m addicted,” he said. “I know it. It’s real bad. I have a real bias for texting people.” 

This was Day 1 of a districtwide ban on student cellphone use at Forest Hills Public Schools, as the suburban Grand Rapids district joined other Michigan school districts with similar new bans.

Walls said he complied with the ban, but that doesn’t mean he has to like it. 

“I think it’s bad. It’s probably good for me, but it’s not what I feel I need.”

Perhaps it is not surprising to find something approaching joy in one parent’s reaction to the same ban. As she waited that day in a school parking lot to pick up her son, Amy Sjolin called the policy “a fantastic idea.” 

“I think the phones are a huge distraction, with the Instagrams, the memes, all the nonsense that goes on. “

So goes this generational debate, as Michigan school officials in several districts across the state impose bans in the name of education while students bridle at the loss of their phones.

Under a policy announced in June, Forest Hills students are barred from carrying or using cellphones throughout the school day. That means everywhere ‒ in class, in hallways, even at lunch.

The policy carries a progressive series of penalties for violators, starting with confiscation of the phone for the day and ending with possible suspension from school for those who fail to follow an imposed phone check-in contract. The contract does permit phones to be available in a school office should students need to contact their parents.

In this district of 18 schools and nearly 10,000 students, officials said the policy grew from a pilot cellphone ban the previous year at a district middle school. The ban was met with skepticism at first -‒ but district officials say it was well received by both teachers and students by the end.

That led to extending the ban districtwide.

Like school officials elsewhere in Michigan, Forest Hills Superintendent Dan Behm argues that research is revealing a downside to undue cellphone use among students.

“The regularity of a cellphone disrupting a student’s ability to focus on something is as damaging as having a loud noise, a train engine, randomly disrupting instruction in the classroom,” Behm told Bridge Magazine.

“It has become clear that excessive exposure to cellphones has a negative effect on school-aged children.”

A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center, a Washington D.C.-based nonpartisan research center, seems to confirm the stereotype: Teens are hooked on their phones.

Pew found that 95 percent of U.S. teens age 13 to 17 use a smartphone and 45 percent say they are online “almost constantly.” More than half said they spend too much time on their phones. Another survey found teens were on their phones nearly nine hours a day

Almost a fourth in the Pew survey said social media had a “mostly negative effect” on their lives.

A third study, from the University of San Diego, concluded that students frequently on their cellphones were twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety as low-level users of cellphones.

Some experts suspect that obsessive cellphone use may in fact be a physiological addiction, as the brain releases the chemical dopamine – part of the brain’s pleasure circuitry – with each digital notification.



And there’s emerging evidence that phones in schools can be a barrier to learning as well.

The London School of Economics looked at test performance of 130,000 students in 91 U.K. schools in 2015 that had banned mobile phones, concluding that scores on a national exam improved 6 percent following the ban. Among underachieving students, scores climbed 14 percent.

Still, one education professor said she is skeptical of policies that summarily take cellphones out of students’ hands. 

“I’m not a proponent of an all-out ban. They just tend not to work,” said Liz Kolb, a clinical associate professor of education technologies at the University of Michigan’s School of Education.

Though she added: “I’m not a proponent of a [cellphone] free-for-all, either.”

Kolb is author of the 2011 “Cell Phones in the Classroom,” which extols cellphones as a powerful educational tool. She teaches education students preparing to be K-12 teachers.

“Bring student cell phones out of pockets and backpacks and into the learning environment,” a promotional online page for the book states.

Instead of a ban, Kolb proposed that districts adopt guidelines where phones are integrated into the classroom at the discretion of the teacher.

“They are most effective and successful when teachers are very deliberate about their use and when it’s not time to use them,” Kolb said.

Kolb said some schools use a stoplight approach, where a red dot outside a classroom means cellphones will not be used, a yellow dot means phones will be put away but could be used and a green dot means students should have the phone out and ready for use.

“Every generation kind of has their thing – rock music, television. Cellphones seem to be kind of a generational tool and conflict as well. But it does come down to giving students an opportunity to explore, giving them room to be teenagers.”

But Tamera Laage, a member of the Forest Hills parent group that recommended the district ban, said a phone-free school might mean more than improved learning. Laage said it could encourage students to actually talk to each other face to face.

“When you are texting, you miss the context, you miss the voice inflection, the little things that make conversation meaningful, that human connection. We learn a lot from each other by actually conversing,” she said.

Other Michigan districts are moving in a similar direction:


East of Grand Rapids, Ionia Public Schools is banning cellphones at its middle school this school year.

"Our responsibility as a school district is to make sure that we are educating our kids both socially and academically," principal Wayne Piercefield III said. "As a staff, we are just realizing that the cellphones are becoming a bigger and bigger barrier to their success."

Grosse Pointe 

At three Grosse Pointe Public School System middle schools, cellphones must be “off and out of sight” this school year.

“We’re looking to build happier, healthier relationships,” Chris Stanley, director of instructional technology, said in a local media report. “This is really an opportunity for us to say, time to put it away, folks.”


Plymouth-Canton Community Schools west of Detroit is enforcing a cellphone ban at its five middle schools, aiming it says to “keep the focus on academics and to reduce unnecessary distractions.”


In Saginaw Public Schools, students must keep cellphones in district-supplied magnetic pouches secured by powerful magnets throughout the day.

As the Saginaw district struggles with low test scores, Superintendent Ramont Roberts said the policy is aimed at improving the learning environment.

“We found the phones were a distraction. We are hoping to eliminate the distraction and increase student achievement in our learning environment,” Roberts said.

It’s unclear what share of Michigan schools now impose cellphone bans. An official with the Michigan Association of School Boards said that organization does not track student cellphone bans among the more than 500 state public school districts – nor was he aware of any organization that does.

While at least several Michigan districts are dialing up new bans this year,a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found that the percentage of U.S. public schools that banned cellphones actually fell, from 91 percent in 2009-10 to 66 percent in 2015-16. New York Cityreversed its public school cellphone banin 2015, leaving it up to school principals to devise their own policy.

But California is headed the opposite direction, as it takes school cellphone restrictions statewide this year with a law that instructs all charter and public schools to develop policies to limit or prohibit cell phone use.

And in France – where 93 percent of those age 12 through 17 have mobile phones – cellphone use is now banned in primary and middle schools nationwide. Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, banned cellphone use in public schools as of this year. The Australian state of Victoria imposed a mobile phone ban this year for primary and secondary schools.

Forest Hills senior Grant Cardin: “I think it’s a bit much. We can’t even use our phones at lunch.” (Bridge photo by Ted Roelofs)

Back at Forest Hills Central, senior Grant Cardin allowed that the policy makes sense – to a point.

“I can see it for the classroom,” he said after the first day of the ban. “But I think it’s a bit much – we can’t even use our phones at lunch.”

Cardin, who played on the high school hockey team last season, said he often gave rides to teammates to a nearby ice rink for practice. They would text him during the day to confirm whether or not they needed a ride – messages he would check during the day to plan his schedule.

“Now I won’t be able to do that until the end of the day. That complicates things,” he said.

Behm, the superintendent, estimates a “couple dozen” students had phones confiscated for the day during the first two weeks of school – step one in the penalty phase. He was unaware of any who reached the second step, where the phone is seized from the student and held by the school until claimed by a parent.

“I have had parents tell me that if it gets to that step, they won’t pick it up until June,” Behm said.

Behm said early reports are promising.

“I’ve been hearing that students at lunch are making eye contact and talking face to face. Older adults might not think that is news. But I can tell you from my own experience, it is different.”

Revisiting the ban a couple weeks after it went into place, Cardin said it was “well enforced.”

Cardin said it had little effect on his lunch group, since he and his friends were more about conversation than cellphones even before the ban.

But he did notice something else: “I can see a few groups that instead of staring down at their phones like they did before, they are kind of doing a lot more talking to each other. 

“That’s different.”

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Fri, 09/13/2019 - 9:17am

I'm not a member of the cool current generation . . . far from it. Nonetheless, I would like to offer something to this conversation.
Researchers have experimented with groups of people of varying ages and come up with consistent results showing the baleful effect of cellphones and smartphones. The experiment subjects are divided into three groups for a test of reasoning and problem solving. Group No 1 have their cellphones with them on the desk, but silenced. Group No 2 have their cellphones in their pockets, also silenced. Group No 3 must leave their cellphones outside the room entirely.
Results: No surprise! Group No 3 consistently outperforms both Groups 1 and 2. AND Group No 2 also consistently outperforms Group No 1.
I heard this reported on Michigan Radio by NPR's Shankar Vedantam.
What conclusion would you draw?
Vince in Grand Rapids

David Benoit
Fri, 09/13/2019 - 9:35am

Rename: "Baby boomer thinks he's cute, pens headline touting superiority over younger generation"

Bobbie West
Fri, 09/13/2019 - 10:07am

I'm not loving people's attachment to cell phones but in this time of school shootings...I'd like to know kids have their phones accessible.By all means require phones be shut off...but let them have them accessible in case of emergency.Given that both parents work in most households I also think they need to allow specific times for kids to send or retrieve messages that may involve family ..or even part time job issues.Cutting kids down to even half time on their phones is a major plus but down to zero is unreasonable.

Sat, 09/14/2019 - 2:08pm

If there is an emergency, you can contact the school, or your child can use the school office to contact you. That is what our school encourages, along with cell phones staying in backpacks (not used) during the day.

Fri, 09/13/2019 - 10:51am

I wish the Huron Valley district had a cellphone policy, it is way too distracting for students and I believe is the source of my daughters stress and anxiety. If only my work had a policy, maybe my co-workers would get some work done!

Fri, 09/13/2019 - 12:04pm

Talking? Making eye contact?!? Good Lord, next thing you know they'll be passing notes in class!

Fri, 09/13/2019 - 7:56pm

Wow, understand the barriers to learning that cellphones cause but there’s also a lot of safety they provide.
Kids can reach out for help when serious stuff is taking place with their phones.
Taking away cell phones removes a very strong layer of safety where kids can reach out for help.
It also teaches them to be dependent on their teachers who are humans with their own flaws.
I would like to see schools foster more independence, teach kids self restraint don’t train them to be a sheeple.

Wed, 01/08/2020 - 11:59am

"I would like to see schools ... teach kids self restraint don’t train them to be a sheeple."

Isn't that the parents' job? Would we have this problem if parents taught their kids to be respectful of the learning process and to put their phones away WITHOUT being told to?

Sharyn Radke
Sat, 09/14/2019 - 5:37pm

I'm not so sure about banning them. It seems like I might want my child to be able to contact me if something happened at school or have a camera in case of an incident that needed to be caught on camera. I wouldn't want the administration to decide whether or not my child could call me. There is the bullying, shooters, bad teachers, bigoted teachers/students. I wouldn't mind a rule that you had to shut them off during class.

Chuck Fellows
Mon, 09/16/2019 - 7:01am

The real challenge is how to integrate cell phones and other technologies into learning instead of taking the currently easy way out - banning them. If the pedagogy, classes and curriculum are so dull and boring, seeking relief from dysfunctional "education" (conformance and compliance the priority, not learning) is human nature. No desire to change the system is not a reason to punish curiosity and imagination. Why not ask the students and listen to what they have to say about the "alleged" problem that has out of touch adults so upset. They should be allowed to be responsible for their own learning, not just compliant drones and a large human warehouse. No, that would be too hard . . .

Carolyn McCreary
Sat, 09/21/2019 - 8:14pm

In the times that we are living in I hope that they at least are allowed to have the phone on their person in case of a mass shooter. They should ALWAYS have a way to call for help with them.

Wed, 09/25/2019 - 1:39pm

Try teaching at a school in the hood. Not only is there a massive achievement gap, every kid has their phone out the entire class period. It doesn't even matter that they're banned. It makes me want to quit teaching.