Of all the “Big ideas” that have changed how we live in the world only one has achieved total supremacy. Its overwhelming and compulsive allure rob its followers of reason and good sense (Van Boven, 2005). It has created unthinkable unsustainability and inequalities among countries, which now pose a stronger threat to human survival than any other phenomena previous(Assadourian et. al, 2010). It is now more powerful than any religion, reaching into every corner of the western world; this monstrosity of an idea is “consumerism”. It holds the mentalitythat we should all actively be trying to consume more everyday and every year, with the more we consume leading to better lives and greater happiness. However as we witness the rise in social problems such as child obesity, crime and psychological disorders in the western world we must consider if there is a link, and as numerous studies have now shown the relationship is substantial (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009).
A new “Big Idea” involving a cultural shift must take place converting people to sustainability and reduction ofconsumption before it is too late for us, and more importantly the environment (Skinner, 1976). Reports now show we are dangerously close to the 2 degree Celsius increase in temperature that will push us over the edge of climate re-stabilization(Meinshausenet al, 2009). Global efforts to reduce carbon emissions and promote sustainability such as the Kyoto protocol are in place however the central problem of consumerism is not being addressed. The next generation will grow up in a world where all they know is how to buy. We are steadily loosing the basic skills that have assured human survival to this day. All our children are learning is how to get the best bargains at Tesco and have life aspirations centered on money and possessions. If consumerism is to be reduced we must promote other substitutesamong the youth and at the very least reduce the current impact of consumerism on their development.
Children as targets
From a consumerist point of view children are the perfect customers, they have no previous appraisal of other products, they are impulsive and will be loyal for life if hooked young. They are the most susceptible to advertising and promotion and most interested in new products. Children now account directly for an estimated $36 billion in sales annually in the USA, with their indirect purchasing power accompanied by the so called “nag-factor” (Zelizer, 2002) reaching over $290 billion of economic spending (McNeal, 1992). This is not a coincidence, but a direct result of intense advertising and co existing problems of a consumer society. For example with over 70% of mothers now working more and more, consumer tasks are falling to the children.It is now estimated that by age 10, the average child makes over five trips a week to a shop or shopping center (McNeal 1992). And with over $1 billion being spent every year on child advertising and an additional $10 billion on promotion in the USA alone, these children have more purchasing power than ever.
Over the last decade there has been a dramatic shift in the age of children which marketers target resulting in the creation of the “Tweens”. From the age of 9 to 14 years children are now considered to be midway between childhood and adolescence and unlike other generations acquisition and accumulation of goods has become a preoccupying behavior (Goldberg, 2003). At this age children are still developing in all aspects cognitively, physically, emotionally, socially most importantly they are gaining values and worldviews. With the new preoccupation of consumerism at this young age children are becoming concerned with material status and money, holding them as central values. Before the age of 8 children do not posses the necessary level of cognitive functioning to understand the persuasive aim of advertising and as a result are under treat from the information received as it causes them to make unhealthy choices about themselves and their relationships.
At this age they are still relatively unaware of others perceptions and so are dominated by a self-centered focus (Kilby, 1993). There viewof materialism is therefore a very simplistic one of “I want this”, “buy me this”, but as children develop this view becomes more complex as material objects take on meaning and the achieving of these goals become an priority. This view “you are what you buy” hashugeimplications for the child’s individual development and how they interact with their environment throughout life. Kranner and Gomes (1995) found that advertisements made children feel deeply inadequate unless they had certain products.
They suggested this not only affects their self-esteem but also is likely to encourage negative behaviors such as stealing to obtain such goods. The views and values of today’s youth are very different than the generation previous. Postman (1994) pointed out how childhood is not an immutable phenomenon but simply a sociocultural creation, which just as its been created can be undone. He argued that advertising and marketing of products once aimed at older teens to younger and younger children is leading to the disappearance or at least alteration of childhood.
Effects of advertising on children
The effects of childhood materialism are still a relatively new area of study however its impact is starting to be seen as children are becoming impacted at a younger age. Childhood obesity has become commonplace in many western countries, kids are now smoking, drinking and taking drugs younger than never before, and they are suffering from more emotional and mental health problems than any generation previous (Schor, 2004). These findings highlight the change that has occurred over the last 20 years with the wellbeing of youth dramatically declining.Schor (2004) found connections between increased consumerism and anxiety, fear, happiness, depression and social withdrawal.
He found continually that consumerism came first and then the suffering followed, not the other way around like some try to suggest. Many studies have now shown that this heightened focus on materialism changeschildren’s values and worldviews. Langer (2005) stated, “Global commercial culture, is an important source of symbolic material for children as they put together their concept of self”. Children now define themselves through material possessions, as opposed to ethical views or community values.
Skafte (1989) demonstrated the affects consumerism has on children’s concepts. He showed a group of “tweens” a picture of a youth who was either poor or wealthy and asked them what they thought of the person. The wealthier youth was perceived as being more intelligent, getting better grades and making friends more easily. In a later study Dittmar& Pepper, (1994) replicated this using short written paragraphs describing either a rich or poor youth through consumer goods. The richer youth described as having more material possession was also perceived by the “tweens” as being more hard working, intelligent and successful, but less warm. The extent to which materialism and consumer goods are seen by these youths to be central to a person’s success in all other aspects of life is quite revealing, showing us how ‘stuff’ now dominates over any other trait.
The physical health of children is also greatly affected as children growing up in consumer cultures have relatively sedimentary lifestyles, leading to the problem of obesity and often unhappiness (Klanie, 2005). Others argue that advertising and the wide availability of electronic media have taken the power of control away from the parents about what their children learn. The dangerous adult world (particularly sex drugs and violence) is openly available for viewing by minors. All the evidence points to the conclusion that the valuing of wealth over other things is making children less healthy both physically and mentally (Kasser& Ryan, 1993).
This is a case for public concern as its affects are filtering up the population as children who watch more TV, movies and videos are shown to have poorer school performance yet be over focused on wealth and consumer goods (Rideout, Foehr, Roberts &Brodie, 1999) creating a gap in expectations and reality. Research has also shown that parents transmit their values to their children(Carlosn&Grossbart, 1988), so if this generation grows up not valuing family and the welfare of the environment and society then the next generation is unlikely to either. For example just as the children of the great depression of the 1930’s related to money in a certain way, usually being very cautious of it, todays youth will irrespectively act in the opposite way becoming carefree and unknowing to the act of “delayed aquisition” (Gorn, Peracchio, Bamossy, 2003). This is beginning to be seen in the huge level of individual house hold debtacross the western world as people wish to obtain the same level of wealth as everyone else around them without the correct access of means to do so. It is therefore vital that this orientation towards consumerism in youth is addressed through public policycreating a culture shift.
Howconsumerist views can be changed.
In order for consumerism to be reduced the mentality and views surrounding consumerism must be altered. From birth the hundreds of advertisements and marketing campaigns now shape us to hold the mentalityto attain “stuff” which in return will shape who we are and bring happiness. La piere (1934) concluded that for change to take place three elements were needed, the person must feel they can do it, have access to memories of action and feel that by not doing anything they are damaging themselves. Under this assumption education and awareness are not enough, they may be helpful in teaching people the dangers of over consumption but will not convince them they can do anything about it or give them access to memories of action. Therefore actions on behalf of the policy makers and educators are vital in making people act and creating change.
Under the policy of the American Psychological Association (APA) it aims to work to “mitigate the causes of human suffering, improve conditions of both the individual and society” and “Help the public in developing informed judgments”(Commercail Alert, 1999). Over the last 20 years there has been a growing amount of research done in the area of youth and advertising much of which has concentrated on how to exploit children’s emotions to increase consumption. Corporations use psychological findings on children’s needs, cognitive abilities, changing attitudes, and relationships with parents to sell their products (Youth Marketing Services, 2004).
Thework of Psychologists in these corporations needs to be carefully monitored. The APA has now made recommendations and now research and investigations must concentrate on helping to counter act “the potential harmful effects of advertising on children, particularly children ages 8 and younger who lack the cognitive ability to recognize advertisings persuasive intent”(Dittmann, 2004, p.58).
By changing how advertising is conducted we can change the message of consumerism being forced upon young children and hopefully reduce consumerism as a result. First and foremost for this to occur Psychologists’ must stay informed, knowing about the relationship between a consumer culture and psychological disturbance (De Angelis, 2004). This will better equip them to deal with questions placed to them, dealing with clients and corporations. Being able to communicate effectively with the greater public and corporations helps keep the public informed to the type of research being done, removing the perception of deception and also enables parents to teach their children how to not fall victim to the commercial culture (Kramer, 2006).
By using innovative means of reaching out to the community through schools, policy and counter advertising we can begin to rebuild a level of trust between psychology and the public, whist on the other hand teach the greater population to be wiser consumers and protect their children from its dangers. This could be implemented through systems already in place, for example “Tidy towns” in which Irish towns and cities compete for the title of “Tidy town”. A further dimension of sustainability could be added to this, in which town allotments, community trade and car pooling are also rewarded.
Schools remain key in the reduction of consumerism as they have long been linked to advertising and marketing (Spring, 2003). The development of a curriculum in which children learn about the persuasive nature of advertising and the risks of over consumption in all areas of life will work to bring such issues to their attention. This is somewhat in place in Ireland with the green schools initiative where school children are encouraged to recycle, compost and plant in their local area with the goal of attaining a green flag. This brings environmentally friendly ideas into action and uses a level of competition to make it more emotive. Also teaching elders about the harmful effects of consumerist aspirations and how they are developed could also help. However there needs to be a removal of all commercial advertising in schools as this should be one place children are free from the bombarding messages(Kramer, 2006). Universities and schools are natural sources of ideas, energy, and information, which should not consist of product placements but items that promote creativity and humanistic values.
There are now plans in place to change the laws and governmental policies surrounding child advertising. Up until 1990 there were laws in place prohibiting the direct advertisement to children under a certain age however with the realization of its benefits to sales in the 90’s it was abolished. Now with APA’s proposal on the ethical implications of child advertising hopefully it will be illegal to advertise to children under the age of 8 due to their incapability of understand its intentions (Dittmann, 2004). Psychologists can also help to reduce the problem of consumerism by using their skills to develop advertisements that counter act the messages of consumerism.
There should be public service ads, such as for road safety (which have reduced road deaths from 640 in 1972 to just 376 in 2002 (Road Safety Authority, 2012). They could concentrate on alternative sources for self-esteem and peer acceptance, such as showing kindness or humor. They could also promote the values and rewards that can come from family and community interaction such as volunteering or participation in sport (Easterling, Miller, & Weinberger, 1995). These alternative messages of social orientation could shift the future goals of the youth and alter their values away from materialistic items, therefore protecting them from dangers of consumerism and reducing the world’s consumption.
We can see the harmful affects consumerism is having on our environment as we exhaust our natural resources and pollute those we have left, as we come dangerously close to the “tipping point” (Lenton et al, 2008). The only way to resolve this global problem is to act now, the resolution starts with us as individuals highlighting the heavy implication of present detrimental government policies. This generation must put in place the tools that are needed to ensure the survival of the planet. At present we are doing the opposite in creating a more consumerist world through our children. We must act now to educate them to the faults of how we live and create a world in which we can exist without the false comfort of consumerism.
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