Cellphone suspensions: Schools lock away digital distractions
Berkley — It was an unscientific experiment by administrators at Anderson Middle School: Take smartphones away from students at lunchtime on Fridays and watch what happens.
"We found student interaction increased significantly and kids seemed to be much less anxious without their phones and all the notifications," Anderson principal Michael Ross said of the cellphone ban tryout last school year.
"Before, there would be a table of 10 kids sitting there and eight were on their phones not looking at each other, and that was quite disheartening to me," Ross said. "On Fridays, the noise level was two to three times louder, and that was good noise. Students were interacting with each other."
More districts are going "phone-free" this school year, requiring students to lock up or turn off their cellphones during the school day to remove the electronic distraction, refocus attention on instruction and encourage social interaction.
Educators says students are constantly checking devices during the school day and anxiety is on the rise due to a "fear of missing out" on what is being posted online.
One Michigan school district — Forest Hills Public Schools outside Grand Rapids — has instituted a new ban on cellphone use during the school day for its entire K-12 student population. Other Michigan districts are zeroing in on middle school students who are often getting smartphones for the first time and struggle with self-regulation.
Christine Annese, assistant superintendent of human resources at Forest Hills, which has 9,760 students, said starting this school year students of all grades will not be allowed to carry or use cellphones during the school day. A ban was tested last year just on students at one school.
"It's the issue of having them out," Annese said. "We actually had students who were talking about the fact that having constant access was causing anxiety for them. They didn’t feel like they were building relationships in meaningful ways."
Smartphones and social media are a fixture of teenage life today. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, more than 9 in 10 U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 say they have access to a smartphone or use social media.
Several parents in the Berkley School District in Oakland County expressed support for the middle school's "away for the day" policy, saying it was long overdue in today's intense, 24-hour digital environment.
The policy covers all personal electronic devices such as cellphones, smart watches, music players and portable gaming devices and applies only to students at Anderson in grades 6-8 and students at Norup International School, a K-8 facility.
"The problem at this age is kids don’t have enough self-regulation to just use a phone for class activity," Ross said. "They veer off and go onto sites, and it becomes distracting."
Berkley students will have two options to talk by phone during the school day: use a student phone in the school office or retrieve their cellphone from a locker and bring it to the office to make a call there.
Kitrina Momper, a mother of three children in the district and a special education teacher in Macomb County, said she is fine with the policy as long as phones are secured in lockers.
But Momper said she knows from her own children's experience that some teachers would prefer to set their own rules for cellphone use in class, since some of them use text messages to communicate with students about assignments, for example.
"We need to teach our kids how to use technology effectively and how to be responsible with it instead of saying 'lock it up' in their lockers," said Momper, who has two daughters at the middle school. “They've got to go free and figure out the best balance, I guess.”
Another Berkley parent said she was concerned about the ban when it comes to school safety. Rita Catchings, the parent of two children in Berkley schools — one in high school and one in middle school — said her only concern with the new policy is in the event of a school emergency.
Catchings said last year when district's high school went on a lockdown, parents used a Facebook page to communicate with each other, posting information their own children were texting them during the lockdown.
"I think that really helped to keep the calm among the parents in the community because of the communication with the kids," Catchings said.
Catchings said her high school daughter has Down syndrome and is not always able to communicate effectively with those around her. Having the ability to talk to her daughter during that time added an extra sense of security for her, Catchings said.
"Access to cellphones are a matter of safety," she said.
Ross said information coming from the district — not students — is the most reliable in the event of an emergency and that students should not be reaching for cellphones during a school security threat.
"If you are in a lockdown situation, that is last thing you want them to do is to be on their phones," Ross said. "Students need to be giving their full attention to safety and to the adults in the room and not be distracted."
Plymouth Canton Community Schools and the Grosse Pointe Public School System are among Metro Detroit districts instituting new cellphone policies at their middle schools this school year.
Grosse Pointe enacted a cellphone policy for its three middle schools called "off and out of sight" that starts this fall. Superintendent Gary Niehaus said students may carry a cellphone that's turned off and not visible to teachers or staff.
"It's best for kids and it's best for our learning environments," Niehaus said. "I learned that kids that are on their phone for multiple hours a day are expecting the screen to change every 13 seconds. It becomes the need for things to move quickly on your screen. It’s a distraction."
One California school district is passing out locking pouches for cellphones as part of a mission to create phone-free spaces. The pouch is locked through a magnetic device and is not unlocked until the final school bell rings.
Christine Greenhow, an education technology professor at the College of Education at Michigan State University, said people like to cite studies that suggest cellphones can be a distraction to learning, but many things are distractions in the classroom, from the student next to you to the activity going on outside the window.
"A ban is a pretty blunt instrument to solving problems in our nation's schools because there is a lot of nuisance to the problem," she said. "I think teachers must have the authority to do whatever it takes to enhance student learning."
One example of having that control is using a "parking lot" for cellphone storage in class, where teachers provide an area of shelving where student put their phones for the class, Greenhow said.
Schools still have huge disparities in technology access, with many students lacking access to laptops at school or home, Greenhow said.
"In a world where we need online devices to do research and access websites, teachers who want to use cellphones for learning should be able to do that," she said.
Teachers should talk directly to students about managing cellphone use, including how to reduce distractions by turning off ringers, removing notifications and shutting down phones, Greenhow said.
"If middle school is a time to teach organizational skills, we can either ban them or help kids by modeling effective use," Greenhow said.
Paul Weigle, a member of the national advisory board of Children & Screens, an interdisciplinary research organization and a child and adolescent psychiatrist, said he has seen big changes in the last 20 years in mental health problems in young people related to screen use.
"It really has changed the landscape of childhood and adolescence in general. Research tell us the more time young people engage in screen time, the more mental problems they can have," Weigle said.
But that connection has to do with how devices are used and patterns of use, Weigle said. Use in the classroom setting has been demonstrated to inhibit learning and even having a turned-off phone within reach inhibits concentration and mental performance, he said.
Weigle says both parents and schools should work together to protect young people from some of the negative effects of online media engagement.
"I think the school ban can be very helpful, but parents really should have cellphone-free zones of their own at the dinner table so it doesn’t inhibit family bonding. Parents should have a cellphone ban during homework," he said.
The school ban is a gift for students, Weigle said.
"Albeit, they don’t ask for it themselves," he said. "Hopefully they will be an inspiration for others to follow suit."