Children caught in materialist trap, says report

Three years ago, UNICEF announced that British children were the most miserable in the developed world. Now they've found out why. Consumerism and a lack of family time.

What makes a person happy? Owning an iPhone and a laptop? Hanging out with friends? Playing sport? Or going shopping? According to a new report, British parents are getting the answer wrong. Their children are caught in a cycle of consumerism that replaces family life with gadgets and designer clothes – and it's making them miserable.

The findings paint a bleak picture for Britain's young people. In 2007, a UNICEF survey found them to be the unhappiest in the developed world. Of 21 countries British children were judged to have the worst family relationships, lowest levels of wellbeing, and highest rates of risky behaviour, such as drug taking or violence.

These results were the inspiration for UNICEF's latest, damning examination of materialism, based on a comparison of British attitudes with those of families in Sweden and Spain. As well as ranking highly in child wellbeing, the other two countries prioritised creative activities and family time over material goods.

Parents in the UK work long hours, and try to make up for their absences by buying expensive toys or branded clothes. Ironically, their children don't really value the stuff parents feel under so much pressure to buy. The younger generation believe happiness is about friends, family and lots of stimulating things to do – not material possessions.

But 'kids' are big business – the average child in the US and UK is bombarded with between 20,000 and 40,000 TV advertisements a year.

Critics argue that it puts pressure on children to meet superficial standards, or replaces constructive activities with time in front of television and computer screens.

So how to tackle this rampant consumerism? UNICEF recommends following Sweden's lead by banning advertising to under 12s, and ensuring good wages so parents don't have to work cripplingly long hours. With Prime Minister David Cameron enthusiastically supporting the importance of wellbeing as a measure of the nation's progress, the proposals could hold some weight for UK policy makers.

Tinted specs

Since the 1950s our society has come a long way, and the rise of consumer culture has been tied up with progress in equality, health and living standards across the board. By condemning it, are we looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses – forgetting the enormous opportunities of our own time?

Critics of materialism, however, point to the UK's outbreaks of looting in August, when young people used riots to snatch new trainers and TVs. It's evidence, they claim, that materialism overshadows values like family and community. Could it be time to put down our credit cards and start looking at the people around us?

You Decide

  1. What is the difference between pleasure, wellbeing and happiness?
  2. This week it emerged that the UK government might restrict advertising to very young children. Is this a good idea? Is 12, as UNICEF suggest, the right threshold?

Activities

  1. Create your own ten-point plan for achieving wellbeing.
  2. Conduct your own investigation into the wellbeing of people in your schools and families. What questions do you ask to accurately gauge wellbeing? Think carefully about how you compare your results and reach interesting conclusions.

Some People Say...

“Money does buy you happiness.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What research did UNICEF do to get these results?
Researchers filmed 24 families, and interviewed over 250 children, aged 8 to thirteen, in Sweden, Spain and Britain. In the original 2007 survey, measurements were taken through a range of methods and scores were given for several areas, including material, educational and personal wellbeing, family relationships, and risky behaviour like underage sex and drug taking.
How can you measure something subjective like wellbeing?
It's hard, but becoming very popular among policy makers. Wellbeing measures being developed by charities ask respondents to rate the truth of statements, such as 'I feel confident and secure in my family relationships', on a scale of one to ten.

Word Watch

UNICEF
The United Nation's Children's Fund. Unicef was set up to provide healthcare and support to children affected by World War II, and since has played a leading role in safeguarding children's rights all over the world.
Wellbeing
Difficult to define, but refers to a wide balance of a person's happiness and contentment in all areas of their lives.
Risky behaviour
Activities that are known to have a potentially negative impact on a person's mental and physical health. Includes things like drug taking, alcohol abuse, and sexual promiscuity.
Materialism
A materialistic society places a heavy stress on goods and products as markers of status, as opposed to human relationships or achievements.
Consumerism
Often used interchangeably with 'materialism', consumerism makes a person's ability to buy – to purchase material goods – one of the most important things about them.

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