The pressure to be ‘cool’, look good and own the ‘right stuff’ is detrimental to many children and teenagers, scientists, including one of Indian-origin, have warned.
The study by the University of Sussex psychologists shows that while many young people buy into consumer culture believing it will make them feel better about themselves and help them to make friends, often the reverse happens.
The result is a negative downward spiral, said the researchers, whereby those with low well-being turn to consumerist values, which impacts further still upon their state of mind.
In the study of 1,000 UK children aged 8-14 over three years, being disruptive, having ‘cool stuff’ and looking good was often seen as the best way to become more popular among peers.
The results, however, showed that valuing these behaviours actually has the opposite effect, with peer relations worsening over time for those kids turning to consumer-culture values.
There were also some interesting differences between boys and girls: depressive symptoms in boys tends to predict increases in their materialism, whereas depressive symptoms in girls tends to predict the internalisation of appearance concerns.
“Our results suggest that children who have low levels of well-being are particularly likely to become orientated towards consumer culture, and thus enter into a negative downward spiral,” said Dr Matthew Easterbrook, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sussex.
“Consumer culture may be perceived as a coping mechanism by vulnerable children, but it is one that is detrimental to their well-being,” he said.
“Our study shows how consumer-culture values are tied up with images of social success in childhood,” said Robin Banerjee, Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Sussex.
“Although friendly and helpful children were ultimately more popular over time, young people mistakenly predicted that the route to being liked was in having a reputation for disruptive behaviour, having ‘cool’ stuff and looking good.
“What we found was another example of a downward spiral – those rejected by peers then turned to consumer culture, which actually worsened, rather than improved, those relationships,” he said.
The latest research is part of a wider project at the University, led by Sussex psychologist Dr Helga Dittmar, that is systematically examining the impact of consumer-culture ideals on children’s personal and social well-being.
The research was presented at the British Psychological Society’s Developmental and Social Psychology Section annual conference.