Coming soon: AboutKidsHealth is getting a new look! Learn more Watch a video tour

print article
For optimal print results, please use Internet Explorer, Chrome or Safari.

Is materialism a coping mechanism for unhappy children?

​With the average young person viewing over 3,000 advertisements a day, it’s no wonder children are robust consumers. Children younger than 12 spend about $25 billion (US) a year on advertised products. This inevitably affects their parents’ spending, which is estimated to be another $200 billion (US) a year.

But the effects of the lucrative advertising industry on children go beyond emptying a parent’s wallet. “Advertising creates the idea that owning the advertised product brings happiness, success and status,” explains Susanne Opree, a researcher at the Centre for Research on Children, Adolescents and the Media at the University of Amsterdam.

While no child or teen is completely immune to the messages of advertising, those already feeling unhappy are most vulnerable. “Children less satisfied with their lives became more materialistic over time but only when frequently exposed to advertising,” says PhD candidate Opree, a conclusion she drew from her study published in the journal Pediatrics.

Child consumerism, happiness and advertising

Opree designed surveys for 466 tweens, between the ages of 8 and 11. Using a scale from one to four, she asked the tweens to rate how happy they were with their life, home, parents, friends, class, school, and themselves and how happy they felt in general. The surveys also measured a tween's tendency to:

  • place possessions and owning possessions at the center of their lives

  • believe getting things brings happiness

  • like another child based on their material possessions.

To identify how much they were exposed to advertisements, Opree also asked how often they watched advertisement-rich television shows, which she found using data from the national Audience Research Foundation in Netherlands.

Why are unhappy children more vulnerable to the effects of advertising?

Materialism creates a kind of coping mechanism for unhappy children, says Opree. Children feeling dissatisfied with life are more impressionable to advertising’s message that possessions are a way to increase happiness.

Cognitive changes before adolescence also explain why tweens are more attentive to advertising. Between age 8 and 11, children begin to take in the perspectives of those around them, including what they see on TV. They start to understand the social significance of goods, or what psychologists call “product symbolism.” A child’s thinking becomes more impressionable to the basic tenets of advertising – mainly that consuming material goods increases your happiness and social status.

But does materialism make kids unhappy?  

While materialism is not necessarily a cause of unhappiness in a child, it tends to be the case when they grow up. Many studies in adults repeatedly show the more materialistic a person, the more likely they will feel unsatisfied with their lives. “Although we do not find any short-term effects (for example, after one year), it is likely that children’s materialism will lead to decreased life satisfaction later in life,” says Opree, stressing the importance of early interventions.

How can parents limit the inevitable effects of advertising?  

  • Maintain open communication with your child. Foster positive-thinking skills so your child can develop an optimistic outlook. If they are experiencing distress or anxiety, help them gain perspective by instilling a sense of self-efficacy. “The results of the research suggest that if we get children to feel happier, they will be less vulnerable to the effects of advertising,” says Opree.

  • Raise a critical thinker. Watch TV shows with your child and pinpoint the persuasive techniques that advertisers use in a commercial, which are often frequent and blatant. In fact, studies show that just questioning the facts of advertisements and criticising a commercial while watching it with your child can minimize the effect of advertising. Not only does the child find the advertised product less desirable, but they won’t ask to purchase it as often. 

  • Question the importance of possessions. There is a high chance the values in a child’s social environment will be the same as those they take on as their own. Appreciate other sources of happiness – friendships, family, and experiences (going on family hikes or giving 'experience' birthday gifts). “Possessions might be less important for children from a warm social environment,” says Opree. “No matter how materialistic children are, in the end, possessions cannot replace strong family bonds.”

    Nira Datta, @NiraDatta