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Consumer Culture, Children & Well-Being: Research, Implications, and Practice



Megan Hurst reports back on the 'Consumer Culture and Children’s Well-being' event.

On Friday 3rd May, 2013, the University of Sussex hosted a research dissemination event relating to the research of the Leverhulme funded project on ‘Consumer Culture and Children’s Well-being’, led by Dr Helga Dittmar and Professor Robin Banerjee. The event allowed the research team to share their exciting findings with interested professionals, and also identified ways of bridging the gap between academic research and applied areas of practice and policy.

The Children’s Consumer Culture Project has been gathering data for the past three years on the links between children’s engagement with and endorsement of consumer culture and their well-being, with measures incorporating physical health, subjective well-being, depression and body esteem. The conference aimed to share the research beyond the traditional academic community, and although we had numerous high profile academics, such as Tim Kasser, Agnes Nairn, and Greg Maio in attendance, we also had representatives from local schools, educational psychology services, clinical psychologists, and other service providers and policymakers .

The event was opened by an inspiring and vibrant speech from Caroline Lucas MP (Brighton Pavilion), who set the research project in a broader socio-political context.  She focused on three key points of policy, relating to:  a) advertising aimed at primary school-aged children; b) objectification of women in the media and the need for improved whole-school strategies concerning gender and relationships; and c) environmental impacts of consumption. Her thoughtful address provided the perfect introduction to the event, resonating with many of the issues that emerged as key parts of our discussion over the course of the day.

Dr Dittmar warmed up the floor for the project team, giving our attendees a taste of consumer culture with some particularly striking adverts (for Littlewoods & Dove (below)), before explaining the research background to the project. Although the negative link between materialism and well-being has been frequently documented amongst adults, very few studies have considered this link in children, and even fewer have followed the same participants over a period of time to better understand the direction of this relationship.

Dr Mark Wright and Dr Matt Easterbrook then walked us through some of the initial work for the project, detailing the extensive qualitative interviews with 60 children and our early scale development work. In this interview work, children overwhelmingly reported ‘social motives’ for wanting the coolest new gadgets or perfect looks. Popularity, fitting in, and improved social status were clearly significant drivers for children’s engagement with consumer culture.  Details of the scales we developed as part of the project and initial relationships between them were also presented.  The preliminary evidence showed that the kinds of social motives detailed above – and not more intrinsic motives concerning helping others and improving health – were significantly associated with depression and life dissatisfaction among children.

Professor Banerjee and Megan Hurst went on to share with the conference delegates some early work on the longitudinal study, the centrepiece of the project, which involved over 1000 children, over three school years. It was particularly nice to have teachers in the audience from many of the schools that had assisted in the data collection. Professor Banerjee wove a heartbreaking story from the sociometric data, with children rejected by their peers at the beginning of the study more strongly endorsing social motives for consumer culture and appearance over time. These children appeared to believe that having more ‘stuff’ and achieving the right looks would secure them social status, but in fact our longitudinal research showed that this belief/value system predicted their peer status decreasing over time; the children became more rather than less rejected by their peers.  In the second part of this presentation, Megan Hurst described the bi-directional links between two elements of well-being (depression and body esteem) and children’s orientation towards consumer culture, again detailing a vicious cycle: children experiencing low well-being at the beginning of the research increasingly endorsed consumer culture values, which in turn resulted in a further decrease in their well-being.

After lunch, the conference split into three ‘breakout sessions’ for discussion: Materialism, Consumption Pathologies and Sustainable Consumption; Appearance, Eating and Body Ideals; and Education, Schools and Families. Each group was tasked with suggesting possible interventions or policies that might emerge from the research, and fed back to the project team before the final session of the afternoon. These groups were filled with exciting discussions regarding a wide range of policy implications, from ways of supporting children at risk of eating disorders, to strategies for working with families and school, and the possibility of restricting advertising targeted at children.  The different perspectives coming from the varied fields represented among the delegates appeared to come together to form a common consensus, summed up excellently by Prof Agnes Nairn (EM-Lyon Business School) in the final plenary session.

The findings of the project tell us that children can sometimes experience ill-being, and so turn to consumer culture to remedy this. Yet, we are getting clear indications that this is a poor coping strategy and in fact leads to further decreases in well-being.  In our plenary discussion, we considered two possibilities for intervention, which are not mutually exclusive.  First, we may be able to increase children’s resilience, so that they develop more adaptive coping strategies.  Second, we can also take major strides forward – informed by policy decisions in other countries – in shielding children from consumer culture, by blocking advertising to children, and engaging in awareness raising interventions where consumer culture is discussed with children in schools.

Dr Dittmar inspirationally closed the day by emphasising the fact that although we appear to be up against a strong adversary in the form of consumer culture, opening up the dialogue and working together at events such as these is an important step towards mobilising efforts to improve children’s well-being.

The project has recently been extended by the Leverhulme Trust for an additional three months, until August 2013, and will be focusing on further in-depth analysis of the longitudinal data and on additional dissemination events and activities.

Further details can be found at the project website. Videos and presentations from the event will be uploaded shortly.