TV Ads May Spur Materialism in Unhappy Tweens

Finally some good news for parents of tweens: A new study shows that marketers may not influence kids as much as many think.

Many parents already know older children can be materialistic. Some tweens not only want the latest games and clothes, but also think owning these things will bring them happiness, friends and popularity. And marketers are eager to get them to buy: Tweens spend $28 billion a year, not including the more than $200 billion their parents spend on them, according to market research company C+R Research.

But Dutch tweens who are happy with their lives are immune to the corrosive effects of materialism and watching hours of television, the study found. Only children who were both unhappy at the study's start and logged a lot of TV time were susceptible to the siren call of marketing. For these kids, frequently seeing advertising made them more materialistic, the researchers discovered.

"For us, this is really exciting and a little bit hopeful," said lead author Suzanna Opree, a doctoral candidate at the Center for Research on Children, Adolescents and the Media at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. "Children becoming more materialistic is often presented as a really big problem, but this study shows the problem might not be as big as it seems."

The research was detailed online today (Aug. 20) and will be published in the September 2012 issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Tweens and their things

The study is the first to examine the long-term effects of materialism on children's happiness in this age group, Opree said. Previous research had found that materialistic kids are less satisfied with their lives. Opree and her co-authors examined the cause and effect: whether materialism causes low life satisfaction or the other way around, and if advertising plays a role. Life satisfaction is a measure of children's overall happiness with their lives, including friends, school, self and family. [10 Tips for Raising Happy Kids]

The 466 children (ages 8 to 11, and 55 percent girls) answered questions about material possessions, life satisfaction and advertising via an online survey performed twice with a one-year interval. All were from the Netherlands.

The researchers focused on the tween group, because that's the time when materialism first emerges. "Until they reach the age of 8, children really only want products for the sake of having them. They're not able to see the symbolic meaning of products, which is really important for developing materialism," explained Opree.

The team tested whether the effect of materialism on life satisfaction depends on advertising exposure; they also examined whether the effect of life satisfaction on materialism depends on advertising exposure.

If the tweens were happy, then even hours of "SpongeBob SquarePants" or "The Tofus" (two shows in the researchers' survey) didn't leave them feeling the angst of wanting what they couldn't have, the study found. Materialism had no effect on life satisfaction, regardless of whether children were frequently exposed to advertising.

But the opposite held true: Life satisfaction had an effect on materialism, but only in children who watched a lot of television. Unhappy children became more materialistic over time only if they logged hours in front of the screen. Children who reported low life satisfaction, and low hours of TV time, didn't become more materialistic. The researchers concluded that low life satisfaction caused materialism, and only in kids who frequently saw TV advertising.

"It's really about the way that advertising tries to sell products," Opree said. "The message is: Buy this product because it will make you happy or make you more popular."

What's a parent to do?

For parents worried their children might be on the road to materialism, there are easy steps to address the effects of advertising, Opree said. First is watching less TV. In addition, watching shows with your children and critically evaluating the commercials verbally with them helps counter the marketing message.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, said the study results convey an important message.

"Parents have an instrumental role in creating a life that is likely to lead to life satisfaction," said Simon-Thomas, a neuroscientist and expert in compassion and positive human emotions. "If your kid has a well-balanced, satisfying, engaged life, then they aren't going to become super-materialistic and unhappy and dissatisfied as a consequence of what they see." [5 Ways to Foster Self-Compassion in Your Child]

While Simon-Thomas did question whether a study conducted in the Netherlands could be generalized to the United States; however, she said, it is not surprising that unhappy children were attracted to advertising.

"The conclusion that advertising's biggest impact was in situations where children come to the table with low life satisfaction is very interesting and provocative," said Simon-Thomas, who was not involved in the study. "When kids are already in a situation where they are feeling some sort of loss and emptiness, they are going to glom on to information suggesting an alternative path, like the stories suggested through advertising."

Opree said the next step is to determine when materialism begins to affect children in the same way as adults. Studies have shown that adults who are more materialistic will become less satisfied with their lives over time, and vice versa: Adults who aren't happy will become more materialistic (for instance, by compensating with possessions).

"It's really interesting to see it does not work that way for children yet," Opree said. "For adults, there is a vicious cycle, but we don't know exactly when it starts."

Becky Oskin
Contributing Writer
Becky Oskin covers Earth science, climate change and space, as well as general science topics. Becky was a science reporter at Live Science and The Pasadena Star-News; she has freelanced for New Scientist and the American Institute of Physics. She earned a master's degree in geology from Caltech, a bachelor's degree from Washington State University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz.