Columbus, OH — What a week. As the father of a preschooler with a baby on the way, my newsfeed seems chock-full-o stories seemingly designed instill a dose of good old-fashioned paranoia. These two headlines surfaced last week, and together they gave me pause as both a parent and healthcare marketer:

1. Associations Between Screen-Based Media Use and Brain White Matter Integrity in Preschool-Aged Children

On Monday, JAMA Pediatrics published the results of a study that revealed some startling connections between toddler screen time and the brain’s physical development. Researchers found that:
“screen use greater than that recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines was associated with (1) lower measures of microstructural organization and myelination of brain white matter tracts that support language and emergent literacy skills and (2) corresponding cognitive assessments.”

This is the first study to demonstrate a correlation between screen time and measurable changes in the physical brain, but it’s far from the first to flag the deficits that the excessive use of multimedia can have on developing brains. Back in 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics published more stringent guidelines on screen time for children along with a set of tools to enable parents to create family media plans, but the question remains: how much are these approaches impacting real-world behaviors?

2. The Happy Meal, a triumph of marketing blamed for childhood obesity, is turning 40

In the past 4 decades since the invention of the Happy Meal, America has seen a steady rise in the prevalence of obesity among its kids.

Source for graph

While countless factors have been blamed for driving this bleak statistic, it’s hard to deny that the powerful push of easy access to high-calorie/low nutrition meals across nearly 14,000 US locations and the pull created by massive marketing spend ($1.5B in the US in 2018) has stacked the deck against today’s children. Has its success spelled many families demise? Jennifer Harris, the University of Connecticut’s director of marketing initiatives for their Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, aptly summarized the challenge when she told the Washington Post that “[McDonald’s] marketing position is that if you love your child, you’ll take them.”

Why This Matters — 

Sometimes the challenges facing good health seem insurmountable — from easy entertainment to convenient cuisine, many of modern life’s luxuries quickly become threats to our overall wellbeing. Fortunately, the discipline of behavioral science has taught us a great deal about how human brains are hard-wired, and its application points out ways to circumvent many of the traps we too often fall into. As parents, many of us realize that we should minimize screen time and feed our children nutritious meals, but with the constant pressures on our time and energy, making the right decision in the real world can be daunting.

A core principle of behavioral science reveals is that mental processing is limited. To save time and energy, our brains often make choices that take the path of least resistance. Fortunately, a few simple hacks can remind us of our ambition or streamline our options.

Don’t Forget Mnemonics — Think of Tamiflu’s Flu F.A.C.T.S. (fever, aches, chills, tiredness, sudden onset). They help anyone easily distinguish influenza from other common maladies, plus they’re easy to recall and simple for marketers to package and message. And then there’s public health’s A.B.C.s of infant sleep (alone, back, crib). They help any sleep-deprived new parent gut-check their exhausted selves before crawling out of a newborn’s room. According to my brilliant colleagues’ newest book, “The key is building short, memorable principles that cut through the clutter of complexity and deliver actionable content.”

Any marketer supporting a family brand or a relevant healthcare company has a real opportunity to double down on creating the mental hacks for parents to make better decisions in the real world.

Interested in learning more? Check out Kathleen Starr, PhD and Leigh Householder’s latest book, Why We Resist: The Surprising Truths About Motivating Behavior Change to start applying the 9 Principles of Influence to your work.

About the Author:

Drew Beck has spent his entire career in healthcare — from direct patient care as an EMT in college to countless roles in pharma sales and global marketing for leading life science companies including Eli Lilly & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline. He is currently a leader on the Syneos Health Insights & Innovation team, a group charged with leveraging deep expertise in virtual collaboration, behavioral science, trends-based-innovation, custom research and global marketing insights.