Junk Food, Brain Food, Soul Food

It’s a bright sunny day here in central New Jersey. Is your child sitting in front of a screen? And are you worried about it?

As parents, we have historically been conservative about our son’s screen time. He didn’t watch any television before he was two, and since our television lives in our basement, he has never really developed much of a taste for it. (“YouTube is funnier, anyway,” he says.) We don’t own a gaming system. But as he’s gotten older – he’s eleven now – our thinking has evolved. And we’ve begun to act on our belief that all screen time is not created equal.

Early on we felt an instinctive distinction between television and some kinds of computer time, just as my own parents made distinctions between public television and commercial television. When Mr. D. requested more TV time, we would ask, “Well, what is it you want to watch?” When he wanted time on the family desktop computer, we started asking, “What is it you want to do there?”

“What difference does it make?” he wanted to know.

Some television just feels like junk food, we said. You know those shows you didn’t plan to watch, but the show you wanted to watch turned out not to be on, and you’ve watched everything you had recorded, so you just end up sitting there, and you don’t even really like it that much, but it’s there, so you watch it?

“Oh yeah,” he said, excited by a sense of recognition, “and then you can’t even remember what you watched! Like Tuff Puppy!” (Here he made a disdainful face.)

Tuff Puppy

Exactly, we said. But sometimes you’re watching because you meant to, with an intent to learn. Or you’re tuning in for a big game, or because a friend told you about the best show ever. And that feels different. And you do all KINDS of different things on the computer, right?

This “what are you thinking/planning” question has since become a staple of our family conversations around screentime. And Mr. D has started to make the case that sometimes, his screen time is not only not in the junk food category, it’s actually in the brain food category.


Here’s Mr. D playing chess against the computer, and transcribing a piano piece he wants to learn to play. Both brain food, right?

Once we started leaning towards thinking about screen time in these more specific terms, then we started talking about lots of things in terms of whether they represented a brain workout or not, and which kind of workout was more challenging.

Card Games

Which of these card games represents more brain work? Three-handed poker or man-on-man tournament Magic the Gathering?


Which has got more of Mr. D’s neurons firing? Composing his own piece? Or playing a piece in a public recital?


Drawing from life with Grandpa? Or drawing from a YouTube video?

Mine Craft Strategy

And what’s going on with these boys as they prepare to debate Minecraft strategies? Does the presence of a friend make a difference? We’ve had some great conversations.

The easiest thing is to lay down a time limit, and sometimes we still do that.

But he sees us sitting in front of our screens for hours at a time, and unless we’re intentionally transparent about what we’re doing, he has no idea what portion of that time is noodling around vs. paying bills vs. writing haiku. So the advantage of the more engaged, situational, and collaborative assessment of when screen time is “worth it,” is that someday (we hope), he’ll be a savvy and ethical consumer, sharer, and producer of media.

Junk food and brain food, check. But what about soul food?

Soul Food

That’s Netflix on the couch on a Friday night, people.

(Backstory: A few months back Lisa Nielsen shared her thoughts about the most recent American Academy of Pediatrics policy recommendation on screen time for children. She asked me what I thought, and her query, in addition to Robert Kim‘s offer to share this with his readers, got me to put down my book, pic up my camera, and dedicate a little screen time to sharing out our current thoughts and practice. Would love to hear others’ thoughts!)

Posted on April 6, 2013, in big picture. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. such a thoughtful yet fun read!

  2. Very nice Shelly. I appreciate you bringing your son’s voice into the post. Sometimes we forget to ask kids what they think.

  1. Pingback: Most Memorable Blog Posts of the Year – 2013 | Reading By Example

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