Screen Time Equals Potato Chips

I know that Forest Gump gets credit for the line, “Life is like a box of chocolates…” but the line I’d like credit for is, “Screen time is like potato chips…” and here’s how that math works.

screen time equals potato chips

We’re a family of four, 2 adults and 2 teenagers, and we’re pretty normal. We like to do normal family type things. We like to eat, watch movies, exercise, text (well, at least the teens do) etc. But what I’ve come to realize is that time in front of a screen is to the mind what potato chips are to the body.

Don’t get me wrong, we love potato chips and eat them fairly regularly. But as much as we’d love to eat them all day, every day, we can’t. We can’t even eat them at every meal. Potato chips aren’t good for us and if eaten at every meal would result in me blowing up like a balloon and my husband’s cholesterol rocketing off the charts.

Screen Time Equals Potato Chips

It took me awhile to come around to this, but I’ve started to think of screen time (all screens – including TV, computer, cell phones, texting, internet, Facebook, etc.) the same as eating potato chips. It’s entertaining, it’s fun, it’s enjoyable, somewhat addicting, but, needs to be consumed in moderation. (Admittedly, I use a spoon and cut open the potato chip bag to get every last salty morsel at the bottom. I’m also not above licking the bag if no one is around. I don’t know how to equate these actions to screen time.)

Screen Time Equals Potato Chips

Just because we can be in front of a screen, on a smart phone, or just checking in on Facebook all the time doesn’t mean that we should be. Just because we can eat potato chips all the time (as much as my husband would like to) doesn’t mean that we should.

So often screens become a distraction to what really needs doing. Settling into a good book can be hard when Pinterest is right there on a pretty screen. Paying attention in school is hard when your cell phone is in your pocket. Having fun hanging out with friends is harder when a friend is texting with someone else the entire time.

Screen time can be hard for me to moderate in myself. It’s certainly harder for me to explain to my kids why they should moderate their screen time, just like we moderate our consumption of potato chips. I suspect the difference must lie in the timing of the feedback. When we overdo on potato chips, the feedback comes pretty quickly. We gain weight or get stomach aches, and our bad cholesterol levels go up. Not so with screen time. The “overdoing it on screen time” negative effects (whatever they may be) don’t appear so quickly.

When my kids were younger, it was easier to remind them that too much TV (even if it was PBS) makes for a “mushy brain” and to go outside to play. They would listen and head out the door. Now that my kids are older, and I think about how best for them to learn the nuances of interacting with people (in person!), it’s harder. They need to practice making eye contact and learning to read body language. They need to hear different inflections in voices and learn to read different social situations but it’s difficult getting them to understand this.

Screen Time Equals Potato Chips

Those missed opportunities for human interaction and relationship building skills can really nag at me, much they like they would if potato chips were all that had been eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But it seems to me that whether I can easily explain it to them or not (probably because I can’t really seem to put a finger on it myself), a little bit less time in front of the screen and a little more doing something else has got to be better for us, right?

What do you think? Could less screen time be better for all of us?

Go Gingham related links:

Technology free Sundays and more family rules that work for our family
Meet Internet Girl she likes shiny objects and is easily distracted!
Please don’t make me text – my fingers are too big to do it!
Do kids really need cell phones? I’m still not sure. Read more about it here
Social networking and parents behaving badly can be found here

For more reading on screen time and what it can do to our minds, check out these links:

The Chicago Tribune, October 3, 2012, “Kids, media and obesity: Too much ‘screen time’ can harm your child’s health,” by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

Forbes, July 30, 2012, “Why nothing is something: the problem of too much screen time,” by Todd Essig

Time, October 20, 2011, “Should Your 2-Year-Old Be Using an iPad?” by Sonia van Gilder Cooke

New Scientist, October 11, 2010, “Too much screen time is bad for active kids, too,” by Nic Fleming

17 thoughts on “Screen Time Equals Potato Chips

  1. This topic is such an important one to me, and something I really struggle with. My kids, who’ve never known life without an abundance of screens, do not understand my concerns because they’ve not seen how interactions have changed and are changing. They argue (with some validity) that this is how people interact now and the rules have changed. Some of my rules/guidelines will work against building relationships in the way their generation builds them. I know they are right, but I don’t know how to strike the right balance.

    We’ve tried multiple approaches to screen time, and haven’t found anything we’re truly satisfied with. It’s much harder now that they’re older. One thing I will say that’s helpful is realizing that not all screen time is created equal. I’ve realized that my son’s intricate and complex video games provide most of the intellectual stimulation he’s getting. (Sadly, little of that happens for him at school.) So much grey in this picture! Trying to formulate guidelines that recognize and acknowledge that time spent on FB and texting is not the same as time spent creating a blog or researching a topic or playing a game that requires creative thought.


    1. Rita, I think your willingness to change your approach and recognizing that not all screen time is created equally is smart. You’re right – not all screen time is equal.
      I hear those same agreements but there is still a need for in person communication regardless of the app or the gadget.
      You have some excellent posts about this on your site, too.
      Thanks, Rita.


  2. One of the other problems is that “Screen Time equals Advertising Time”. Every screen has its ads targeting those young eyes. Look at them long enough and one will become convinced that one must, must, must have that item or service advertised.

    I don’t have kids at home so I have no solutions in dealing with the situation.


    1. So true, Karen. We were able to escape a lot of that advertising with viewing of PBS only when our kids were younger. Now I just say, “Mute the commercials” which is another lovely job of mine!!
      Thanks, Karen.


  3. Very thought-provoking! I like the idea of likening screen time to junk food. I’m aware that I need to make some changes with both in my life (and the lives of my kids!).


  4. I don’t disagree with most of what you’ve said – the relationships, social interactions, learning how to “read” visually a person and a situation are some of my arguments against some of the online schools and programs that are out there, but I’ll be the first to admit that all at my house consume a ton of “potato chips” aka screen time. TV, computer, phones – we love ’em all. I do think that what a family does INSTEAD of screen time is also critical. As an example – one of my previous positions was in the executive office of a local elected official. Since almost the day she was born, our daughter has been around adults, some of them “of consequence.” As a result of her personality and those situations, she can and does carry on conversations with adults of all levels. Sometimes, because of screen time at our house – whether MSNBC, or ESPN, she’s able to carry on a more in-depth conversation because of something she’s heard or seen.

    Another example – when my oldest daughter was in high school (a new school, a new step-dad, a new place to live, etc.) she started skipping school. We tried grounding, taking privileges away, etc., but what really did the trick was this, and it was something we could monitor. She had to read a newspaper daily – front to back – either the Oregonian, New York Times, or Christian Science Monitor, watch one local and one national news broadcast daily, read one weekly news magazine, and be prepared to discuss any of the above with either me, Roger, or Roger’s dad, who lived with us at the time. That screen time paid off – after about three days, she was astounded at how uninformed not only her classmates were, but her teachers as well!


    1. Cathy, yes, the good side of the screen. I really like the solution you came up with for your older daughter. Reading the paper and being prepared to discuss current events is a good skill. Very smart.
      Thanks, Cathy.


  5. Sara, these are subjects close to my heart. I am hoping We try to teach that junk food is ok … occasionally … in moderation. Likewise, we try to teach that screen time is ok … in moderation … and try to steer our kids toward PBS-ey quality screen time. But at ages 9 & almost 7, I know I am on the “easy” end of this–I will be waiting eagerly for any brilliant suggestions out there!


    1. Kris, I’m not sure I have any brilliancy on the topic but I would say waiting is better. Waiting to get a cell phone or Facebook until kids are older, rather than when they’re younger.
      I do think more time reading and playing outside is better than anything else.
      But, yes, all things in moderation is a good rule of thumb.
      Thanks, Kris.


  6. This is a complex topic, much more so than the consumption of “junk food.” The generation that grows up with screens in their hands will be a true experiment in the human condition. I have seen the advantages and disadvantages of “too much screen time” vs “people time.” Over the years I have seen the quality of communication (written and oral) decline. Texting abbreviations have infiltrated written communication, and not always for the better good. I remember in the old days when we wrote reports by paraphrasing from books and encyclopedias — we had to write it down and think about how to write it to make it sound like we were paraphrasing. Now students just copy and paste from the Internet without giving thought to what they copied and pasted.

    Some of the richness of true research is lost — the Internet is not the only source of valid, credible information. One can argue that some of the Internet resources are of dubious credibility and some are downright dangerous (as in health resources). Depending on the type of research, one still must wander through the stack of tomes written by our predecessors to get an idea of history, culture, politics, religion, law, society, art, and literature. Not all of these content-rich resources are available on the Internet.

    The Internet certainly has made it possible to document contemporary life (the good, the bad, and the downright ugliness). Contemporaneous information recorded as it happens has shed the spotlight on cultures and activities that would have gone through many censoring channels. Are we wiser because of the wealth of information at our fingertips or are we bloated from too much information overload that needs pruning?

    We can argue for years on this, but our young ones will be the true experiment as we move forward — will we be a culture of courteous, responsible, compassionate, honest, and dependable citizens? Or will we have created a generation focused on me, myself, and I? Only time will tell for sure.

    As with all technology, we have to weigh the good with the bad and temper that stuff in between. Guidance from the “village” becomes key to raising well-rounded individuals who see past their own wants and needs.


    1. Sue, you are so right. It pains me to see my kids using the internet as a resource for their school work and yet that’s what they’re being taught to do in school.
      I don’t like that kids are allowed so much technology especially at school. Every time I pick one of my kids up from school, I cross my fingers that no students get hit by cars because the kids are all looking down at their hand helds and cars are zipping around in a hurry.
      Somewhere I read or heard the phrase “amusing ourselves to death” and it really stuck with me. I’m afraid that’s where we’re headed!
      Thank you, Sue. As usual, you have shared a well thought through and articulated response.


  7. “Just because we can be in front of a screen, on a smart phone, or just checking in on Facebook all the time doesn’t mean that we should be. ”

    I love this line of yours, Sara. I so agree with the comparison of screen time with potato chips. It’s fun and addictive, but too much is not good for us.

    I admire how you are being thoughtful about this issue with your kids. Dr. Ken Ginsburg, at a recent talk I went to, said that we shouldn’t be concerned about making our kids happy. Our goal is to make them into successful adults. Momentary pleasures are easy to come by, but the self-discipline required to achieve our goals is not.


    1. Amy, I like Ken Ginsburg already and I’ve never heard of him!
      The thing with happiness and trying to make our kids happy is that it’s a feeling and it changes – often! I would argue it’s the same with self-esteem. Both of these (happiness and self-esteem) are important but you get them from doing for others and helping others.
      One of the hardest things to teach kids is stick-to-it-ness, which is really self-discipline and that it takes hard work to achieve goals. I’m all for down time but I know that much of “screen time” involves no work at all and is a distraction to what’s really important and needs doing.
      Thanks, Amy!


  8. There is a book by the title of, Amusing Ourselves to Death, written by Neil Postman. I read it many moons ago (published in 1985). What he said back then still applies today.


    1. Sue, that’s it! He also wrote, “Bridge to the Eighteenth Century” or something along those lines. But you’re right, those books weren’t written yesterday but do apply today.
      Thanks, Sue.


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