babies and screens

Screen Time and Babies: What Responsible Marketers Need to Know

At this year’s SXSW Interactive, I was both an attendee and a presenter. Dr. Sarah Huisman, a Professor of Early Childhood Education, and I partnered to lead a session titled “The Health Impact of Screen Time for Babies and Toddlers.”  Our session was bucketed in a new format—what SXSW calls a “Core Conversation.” This is different than a standard panel because of it’s engaging nature. The point of this conversation is to do just that—have an interactive dialogue on a particular topic with the audience.

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As an agency geek with an MBA/MSIMC and diverse marketing experience, I rarely hear this topic discussed in my field, which is precisely why I wanted to raise awareness of the impact of screen time to the marketing community.

About a year ago, in a casual conversation with Dr. Sarah Huisman, she mentioned that she had been researching and lecturing on the topic of screen time and young children for the past 10 years. I was taken aback. I had spent the majority of my career working to reach parents and families by participating in creative brainstorms, and trying to come up with cool apps and digital gamification. All the while, the impact of screen time had never been discussed. I was surprised to hear of the guidance issued in 2011 by the American Pediatrics Association, that warns against screen time under age 2.

There is a major disconnect. The impact of screen time is a controversial and hot topic among educators and health care professionals, however, marketers (the professionals essentially creating the screen time experiences) know little about this important topic. As a marketer and a mother-to-be, my goals for bringing this conversation to SXSW were to raise awareness of this topic, create a dialogue, and to encourage responsible marketing.

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Below are 5 key takeaways from our conversation on how screen time effects child development.

  1. Access and Availability: For those of you that think “well, I grew up watching TV and movies and playing Nintendo, and I turned out fine,” young children have many more opportunities to engage in screen time today including screens in minivans, iPads at dinner tables and iPhones in the stroller. Screens are everywhere. Among other aspects, this limits their exposure to important real-world situations that create needed real-world skills.
  2. Learning Through the 5 Senses: It is necessary for young children to first gain physical knowledge of their world, and experience objects in 3-D before they can appropriately process the 2-D symbol found on screens. How can a screen help a baby experience the physical attributes of soft/hard, sphere/cube, cold/hot, salty/sweet or the smells of nature?
  3. Brain Development:  From birth to the age of 2, a baby’s brain grows from 25% to 80% of the size of an adult brain. The foundation for learning is formed during this time. The common phrase for this stage of brain development is “use it or lose it”.
  4. Social/Emotional Development: Secure attachments are formed with the baby’s significant adults through consistent eye contact, skin-to-skin-contact and talking/human connection. A secure attachment is necessary for the baby to develop trust in self and trust for others–trust that they are worthy enough for others to respond to their needs and trust for those in their environment to meet their needs. Secure attachments and trust lay the foundation for future social and emotional health. Time spent in front a screen is precious time away from building human relationships.
  5. Information Processing:  Babies process information 16 times slower than adults. While content may look normally paced to adults, it’s simply too fast-paced for babies to process appropriately.  Their brains aren’t developed enough to follow the content. This has been linked to attention-span issues later in life.


The objective of this presentation was to inform and to initiate the conversation about the impact of screen time on child development, from the perspective of marketers (many of whom happened to be parents as well). My personal goal at SXSW was to bring this topic to an audience who might be unfamiliar with it, and to encourage all of us to integrate this knowledge as we practice responsible marketing. The session was productive and we received many follow-up questions and comments from a variety of different perspectives. I am hopeful that we will continue to facilitate this conversation and explore all angles of this important discussion.