Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Materialism and Unhappiness Linked, Even Among Children

We've all heard the saying, “money can’t buy happiness.” New research is beginning to show that this may be true among children as well. A new study released in the journal Pediatrics showed a relationship between children’s level of happiness and their level of materialism; however, television advertising also played a big role.

The study included 466 children ages 8 to 11 who filled out two surveys (one year apart) regarding their happiness with their life, as well as whether they felt material possessions could bring happiness. The primary finding of the study showed that children who were less happy with their lives were more materialistic by the second survey point, but only if they were frequently exposed to television advertising. Interestingly, the study did not find the opposite to be true—children who were more materialistic did not report being less happy one year later. However, it is important to note that in research among adults, materialism is generally linked to greater levels of unhappiness. Thus, although, this study did not indicate materialism being a source of children’s unhappiness, it may well become so in the future.

After reading about this study, it may be easy to assume that the unhappy children are simply the ones watching more TV and this could explain these findings. Interestingly, this is not the case. Children rated as comparatively less happy did not report higher levels of TV watching. It is also notable that children’s exposure to advertising was measured simply by the time watching certain advertising-laden TV shows. It would be especially interesting if future studies could examine the types and content of the advertising that children where exposed to most often.

I think this type of research is really important in our society that is so saturated with advertising. It raised a few questions for me. First, for the kids that reported being unhappy, I wonder what was the source of their unhappiness. Could they have some difficulties with their relationships with peers or family members that make them unhappy? Is there something inherent in certain types of advertising that is especially appealing to the needs of these unhappy kids?

Clearly, more research is needed in this area to explore questions such as these. In the meantime, the study’s authors raise the excellent point that it is helpful for parents to try to educate children at a young age on the tactics that advertisers use to entice kids to buy material objects in the hopes of bringing happiness. None of us parents want our kids to think that material objects hold ultimate importance or that they can bring happiness. Watching TV together and pointing these things out can be a good teaching moment. TV is not all bad, either. Some programming, especially the commercial-free variety, can be used to promote values that you support. The more we can do as parents to help our children see through these advertising tactics, the more they will hopefully look to more meaningful paths to happiness.

There are many good resources available online to help parents and teachers educate children about appropriate media use and advertising tactics. Here are just a few helpful links:

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