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Teched-out students

Where’s the line between online learning and Web wipeout for today’s kids?

August 14, 2013

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The Phone Stack Challenge is one way to keep people focused on the people they’re actually with.

In just a couple weeks, kids around metro Detroit will get charged up, logged in and ready to scroll back into class for another school year.

Along with new backpacks and pencils, many students will be loading up their lockers this year with the hottest new devices, like smartphones, tablets, laptops and more. For years, adults and kids alike have made these digital doodads an essential element of everyday communication, socializing, business and even learning.

While technology has made life easier in a lot of ways, there are some who think that users — especially children — are vulnerable to being overwhelmed or even overloaded by the constant stream of information brought to them by the Internet.

Mark Ostach, aka “The Digital Diet Guy,” has made it his mission to convince people that they need to take a little space from cyberspace. Since 2009, Ostach has been examining the effects of digital burnout — an affliction from which he, himself, suffers.

“I think technology has shown to be a great platform to advance learning in areas where we didn’t have resources in the past, like downloading the latest greatest version of a text for a class. Barriers have been taken down in this digital age we live in. It’s been really exciting in the last 10 to 15 years to consume as much information as humanly possible with smartphones, social media, e-books and e-training. There seems to be more, more, more, more,” said Ostach. “But are we really looking at how much digital consumption we’re taking in?”

He said that, with electronics more affordable than ever, and wireless Internet access readily available, many of us are connected to the Web almost every minute we’re awake. An average student, Ostach said, is “plugged in” anywhere from 12-18 hours a day. Even simple notifications, like a phone ringing or a text-message alert, can add up to major stress as neuropathways in the brain become overstimulated. The result is a constant state of alertness that could be emotionally and physically taxing. Over time, symptoms of technology-brain burnout could develop, such as fatigue, memory lapses, mood swings and even anxiety or depression.

The situation is tricky, as tech-burnout is a relatively new problem facing parents and educators. Ostach believes that, in the coming years, we’ll see more families and schools working together to get a handle on online usage. Many schools are designing curriculums to include more online learning, so it’s not likely a student could be cut off completely. It’s all about striking a balance between the real world and the digital world.

“I like to compare it to smoking in the 1930s and ’40s. Your doctor was recommending which cigarettes you should smoke, even to pregnant women. You could smoke in elevators, planes, the workplace. Everyone smoked, and it’s similar to smartphones; everyone has one. It’s going to follow a similar pattern, and we’re going to look back and go, ‘Wow, can you believe we used to let toddlers use iPads, and smartphones were given to kids when they were 7, 8 and 9 years old?’”

Ostach admits that he’s one of many people who needs to be online for business, as well as leisure, and was once a self-proclaimed “technology addict.” But once he decided he didn’t want to be a slave to his inbox, he began researching the problem and discovered ways to keep his online presence without sacrificing his mental health. The key, he said, is moderation. On his website,, he shares his findings and simple methods that individuals and families can take to unplug and get back to the real world, if only for a few hours each day.

“Say, ‘Yes, you can have an iPad or an iPhone, but it comes with boundaries. Not because we’re trying to be a mean parent, but we want to make sure you’re striking a balance and you’re not distracted when you’re crossing the street or driving,’” he said. “Have rules when they can and can’t use their iPad at home.”

Many schools are working on developing policies to strike that healthy balance Ostach is talking about. In Birmingham, the rule of thumb is to allow the use of digital devices, so long as they contribute to the learning process.

“The use of technology … is an integral part of the district’s approach to 21st-century teaching and learning,” said Paul DeAngelis, deputy superintendent of Birmingham Public Schools, in an email. “The investment in our wireless infrastructure allows greater access for staff and students, and encourages learning found outside the walls of our schools to be accessed, evaluated and used.”

Lake Shore Public Schools, like many districts, doesn’t yet have a firm policy to control the relatively new dilemma. Superintendent Christopher Loria said that technology is used and encouraged in the classroom, and overuse is handled on a case-by-case basis.

“I don’t think you can ever have enough technology. The only time you have too much is when the person has not been trained on how to utilize it,” said Loria.

He admitted, though, that there have been instances when devises have been taken from students temporarily when they were being used disruptively or inappropriately in class. Oftentimes, that boils down to students texting while they should be learning. But even those cases, he said, are often outweighed by potential benefits.

“We had a student who had a seizure, and we go into lockdown (when that happens) so the ambulance has a clear way to get to the student to help,” he said. “So students start texting parents and we get a flood of calls, and we tell parents immediately what’s going on so everyone knows. It’s just a sign of the times. The technology — it’s there.”

That “let’s take it as it comes” attitude can lead to a lot of confusion for students, according to Ostach.

“Some schools are restricting phone use in class, but parents want 24/7 access to their kids. What do you do if your parent texts you in class: do you get grounded at home or get detention at school? It starts with getting parents and teachers to the table to start these conversations about balance.”

Moreover, he said that parents and schools need to start taking social media into consideration when dealing with traditional issues like bullying, dating and behavior problems.

“An interaction that used to happen in the hallway is now happening on Facebook, but the interaction is the same. Student wellness needs to incorporate the digital world,” he said. “Ask your child not just, ‘How was your day,’ but, ‘How do you feel?’ ‘Anything cool go up on Instagram?’ Show them you do care what’s going on in their digital world, because that’s a part of their life.”



Mark Ostach, founder of, has found a number of ways to get students to put down their smartphones and get in some real face time with family and friends. Here’s one of his favorites:

Phone Stack Challenge

This game can be played at the family dinner table or among friends at a restaurant or coffee shop. Here are the rules:

• Everyone gathers around a table and sets their cellphones in the middle, stacked on top of each other.

• Cellphones stay in the stack until the end of the meal. At home, the first one to grab for their phone loses, and that person gets dish duty. Elsewhere, the loser has to pick up the tab.

The idea is that people won’t be able to sneak a peek at their phones during the interaction, as the devices are in the center of the table for everyone to see. Instead of texting or going online, participants will simply enjoy the company of the people present. If no one goes for their device by the end of the game, everyone wins — in more ways than one.


About the author

Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki covers Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Franklin and Bingham Farms along with Birmingham Public Schools, Oakland County Parks and Recreation and Oakland County Animal Control and Pet Adoption Center. Esshaki has worked for C & G Newspapers since 2011 and attended the University of Michigan-Dearborn and Oakland Community College.


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