There’s a growing realisation that consumerism and the ability to acquire more and more stuff such as toys, clothes and digital devices might not be doing our kids many favours.
Research from around the world suggests the rampant materialism which affects much of the West could be to blame for a generational malaise of low self-esteem, isolation and boredom. It’s not a new thought but one which I now believe requires far more attention instead of the bland surrender that there’s little we can realistically do to ease the tensions of having too much.
As a consumer advocate helping adults make informed decisions around money, marketing and endless new products and services I fear we’ve overlooked our kids’ own dilemmas. How do they know they don’t have to keep up with the Jones in terms of top brand names or learn how to resist and see through the many online entreaties to buy, buy and buy?
Maybe it’s having two teenage sons and seeing how they, and many of their peers, have been showered with far more gifts than they could ever realistically use. It’s seeing how their tastes have developed for pricey brand names and their frustrated desires to replace technology such as perfectly workable smart phones with the latest hyped model.
In 1960 Dr T. Berry Brazelton, one of the US’s leading pediatricians said acquisitiveness and consumerism were a root cause of parents and children not knowing each other. In 2004 Professor Juliet Schor wrote Born to Buy about the new consumer culture targeting the commercialised child and decried the culture of getting and spending leading to poor health. In 2009 Australian academic Professor Sharon Beder wrote This Little Kiddy Went to Market, subtitled The Corporate Capture of Childhood about advertising manipulating vulnerable children.
Leading consumer research shows that as children reach early adolescence and experience a decline in self-esteem they are likely to use material possessions as a coping strategy. And there seem to be whole industries willing and able to use this demand and their new found affluence, through parental indulgence and occasional earnings, to market at them long and hard.
We have plenty of data of how children are bombarded with ads particularly around junk food. We know Australia’s 10-13 year olds now spend more time on the internet, which is packed with insidious marketing via games and apps, than watching TV or socialising with their pals. At the same time, recent reviews reveal teens are suffering from more anxiety and depression.
It’s also become almost normal to spend hundreds of dollars on what were once simple kid’s birthday parties. UNICEF has said parents can trap their offspring into ‘compulsive consumerism’ with an over-supply of toys and designer labels instead of simply spending time with them. In the US in 2006 leading researchers in this area called American teens and ‘tweens’ the most brand-orientated, consumer-involved and materialistic in history. Australian youth is surely right up there in these disturbing superlatives. Consumerism is not of course to blame for all their woes but it could be contributing to many of them.
Adults face their own issues around what’s been called ‘affluenza’ but surely we owe our children more than to drop them unaided into a marketing and materialistic maelstrom. And the question remains – what are we prepared or able to do about it?
Christopher Zinn is one of Australia’s leading consumer advocates and media commentators. He works to help empower groups and individuals to make better decisions around money, bills and buying.