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The Effect of Materialism on Families and Kids

For thousands of years older people have worried that changes in society (reading, dancing, comics, cinema) were corrupting the young and undermining youth's morals and well-being. So should we be worried about materialism's affect on the younger generation? Emphatically yes, as we are now living in a world (at least in the UK) that is undermining children's mental and physical health. This is not just our contention. UNICEF undertook research into the well-being of children in 20 rich nations and those in the UK scored the lowest, just behind the USA. As much poorer countries had a higher placing, values, way of life or culture must play a part.


The UNICEF research into child well-being puts children in the UK at the bottom of the league table. This engendered such angst in political circles that research was commissioned into the underlying causes and it was carried out by Dr Agnes Nairn and IPSOS Mori and published in 2011. 

Nairn compares children and family life in the UK, Spain and Sweden, particularly focusing on inequality and materialism. Sweden was second in the 2007 UNICEF league table for child well-being and Spain, fifth in the list, has very high levels of subjective well-being despite serious inequality.

One of the most striking findings is that children across the three countries were remarkably consistent in describing a 'good day'. This involved 'time with those they love (friends, family and even pets); creative or sporting activities; being outdoors and having fun.'  (26) It was 'people not things which made them happy.'  Family time was also important and they did not see material possessions 'as essential to their well'-being' . There was one exception to this: poor children in the UK were more likely to talk about purchases.

The main difference to emerge in this comparative research was parents' attitudes. The Swedes were child centred with both parents involved and organising their work life round child care. They saw their primary role as raising responsible, independent citizens and they ensured children participated in household chores.  In Spain mothers, supported by the extended family, mainly look after children.  They loved spending time with children and being  involved with them. Nairn writes that 'being a parent was natural in Spain and Sweden' and that 'time with the family is prioritised over work and other commitments'.

However, being a parent in the UK was 'strained'. The picture that emerges is of parents working long hours, often for low pay, and struggling to spend quality time with their children. Long hours were added to by long commutes and the working hours expected in higher paid jobs.  UK parents also felt compelled to buy their children the latest brands or gadgets, fearing that their offspring would otherwise be bullied or left out. Nairn talks about a 'compulsive consumption cycle' which was absent from Spain and Sweden. 'Consumer culture in the UK appeared in our research to be 'disposable' with households full of broken and discarded toys and a compulsion to continually upgrade and buy new', writes Nairn. She adds 'This stands in stark comparison with Sweden and Spain where toys and electronic gadgets were looked after, often mended when broken, and were cherished as long-term companions.' People sitting at home in different rooms watching TV was also a particularly UK phenomenon.

Nairn's research also highlighted another worrying trend:

 '… the Spanish and Swedish parents we observed appeared to be more confident in their ability to draw and enforce boundaries, and more confident to say 'no' to their children than was the case in the UK families. Negotiating the commercial world was distinctly more problematic in the UK and this was the case regardless of social circumstances.'

One of the reasons why UK parents may give in and buy their children more is that the long working hours culture makes them particularly susceptible to what the advertising industry calls 'guilt money' or the 'I'm sorry syndrome'

We know that children in the UK are exposed to advertising and the commercial world for seven hours a day on average.  They know they do not need purchases to have a 'good day' but in the absence of quality time spent with parents and friends in creative or outdoor pursuits they will resort to materialist demands. Why wouldn't they given that the pressures to buy are everywhere and buying is so linked to status and 'being cool'? Three out of five children in the UK admit to pestering their parents to get what they want and will get annoyed if they don't get their demands met. Some young girls readily admit to being 'shopaholics', expressing guilt and remorse at buying things of no consequence to them. 

Resisting young people's demands, limiting screen time and encouraging them to eat well, go to bed early and take exercise often makes parents feel that they are engaged in a battle with their children. Indeed because controlling their children's lives has become so challenging many parents admit that they simply give into the pressure for fizzy drinks and junk food. Under the weight of huge commercial pressures, children's diet and resultant obesity has become a major issue leading to life-long health problems for the next generation.

Commercialisation's grip on our children

The conventional paradigm of childhood as a life stage that revolves around family and schools has had to change. It's the commercial world that dominates the time of today's children.'  This is the what Agnes Nairn and her co-author Ed Mayo write in their book Consumer Kids: How Big Business is Grooming Our Children For Profit (2009). But how on earth did we get here?

Advertising to children is not new. I can remember ads from my childhood including jingles and slogans. However, until the late 1980s the children's market was small and advertising's poor relation. Four factors resulted in change: a realization that children had disposable income; more television programmes aimed at this age group; children viewing alone; and the decline of authoritarian parenting giving children influence on family spending.  As the economist Juliet Schor says in Born to Buy (2004) 'By the 1990s the stage was set for a thorough revolution in youth marketing.'  

Fast forward to our own time and the youth market is worth $188 trillion worldwide. In the UK spending on 5-16 year olds was 110 billion in 2009 and it had doubled in only eight years.. Nairn and Mayo assert that companies operating in the UK are 'child catchers' who see children simply as a market to exploit for profit.

Sadly business and advertising have deliberately engineered some of the agro between parents and children as it suits their purposes for kids to feel they inhabit 'a secretkid world' which adults don't understand.  Juliet Shor explains that the commercial world is redolent with what is called 'antiadultism'. She admits that there has always been some generational conflict (though interestingly this does not exist in traditional societies) but that this has been deliberately exaggerated by marketers.   Since the 1960s the commercial word has successfully engineered a separate culture for teenagers, complete with their own styles, fashion and language, and promoted the idea of teenage rebellion.  However, this approach has 'trickled down' to younger and younger children. This started in the USA with the cable network 'Nickelodeon' which also has a massive reach into children's worlds through the web, games and products. Its core philosophy is 'Kids Rule'.  According to Shor, an 'antiauthoritarian us-versus-them' attitude pervades Nickelodeon and a growing number of products and games aimed at young people portraying parents as repressive, boring, and joyless. A study of 200 video game ads between 1989 and 1999 reported that a common theme was 'the rejection of home environments as boring suburban spaces.'

Media expert Professor Mark Crispin Miller nails what's happening when he says:

‘.. there's often a kind of official and systematic rebelliousness that's reflected in media products pitched at kids. It's part of the official rock video worldview. It's part of the official advertising worldview that your parents are creeps, teachers are nerds and idiots, authority figures are laughable, nobody can really understand kids except the corporate sponsor.'

This philosophy also permeates programmes aimed at kids with cartoon characters or boys and girls 'with attitude' speaking rudely and disrespectfully to adults as well as each other.  Even the wholesome Disney Corporation has darkened some of their characters. Mickey Mouse features in a new video game and he's lost his clean-cut image and is meaner.

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