Probing Question: Does materialism harm kids?

kids
James Collins

Materialism permeates American culture. While our economy thrives upon it, our songwriters have long warned against it: In the sixties, the Beatles sang "I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love" and today, Kanye West raps that "the prettiest people do the ugliest things for the road to riches and diamond rings."

Our scholars, too, have explored materialism's light and dark sides. Some believe it leads to greater human good, while others argue that excessive materialism can harm our happiness and quality of life.

Parents have reason to prevent their children from becoming too focused on material possessions, says Marvin Goldberg, chair of the marketing department in Penn State's Smeal College of Business, who has studied materialism and youth. "Balance is the key," adds Goldberg. Materialism is a value—and there is no problem as long as it remains in balance with other values like family, friendship, spirituality, health and the outdoors.

"Nobody is suggesting implicitly or explicitly that we need to be monks, where the materialism value slips away to nil," Goldberg explains. "The issue becomes a concern only when someone makes materialism their main focus, because it can displace other values that we see as very important in our society."

Goldberg's advice to parents is to teach children the importance of non-material values. Show your children how much fun it is to go on a bike ride or how important it is to do well in school, he says.

Be aware of how much "family time" is actually time spent shopping and make sure to spend time with children in non-consumption activities. Build coalitions with your church, temple, or school—institutions that serve as alternatives to the consumer culture.

"It's very difficult to fight the consumer culture by yourself," says Goldberg. "It's not just a matter of saying 'let's buy less.' It's a matter of time away from the mall doing other things."

The heightened attention marketers pay to the nation's 9- to 14-year-olds led Goldberg and three other researchers to develop a tool to measure youth materialism. Goldberg was the lead author on the study published in The Journal of Consumer Psychologyin 2003.

The nine to 14 demographic—"tweens" in marketing speak—is 27 million strong and influences $170 billion in annual sales. Companies spend billions each year targeting this lucrative market.

In a national survey of 540 parents and 996 tweens, Goldberg studied connections between marketing, youth materialism, happiness and school performance. Those kids who scored the highest on the materialism scale were also the most susceptible to advertising and most interested in new products. Compared to less materialistic kids of the same age, they tended to shop more, save less, and have more purchase influence with their parents, who consider them the experts on products like soft drinks, popcorn, milk and shampoo. Among the tweens who had jobs, the more materialistic ones earned more money.

The study also found that the most materialistic kids went on more shopping trips with their parents than their less materialistic counterparts. Another finding confirmed the common wisdom that materialistic parents raise materialistic children.

Overall, the kids' grades were fairly high, but the most materialistic didn't perform as well in school as the least materialistic kids. And while the study found no connection between materialism and happiness, the most materialistic tweens were much more positive about their future financial well-being than the less materialistic ones.

Another interesting discovery: Today's nine-year-olds are just as materialistic as 14-year-olds. Says Goldberg, "This supports the notion that the effort to market down to a 'tween-age set is, in a sense, robbing children of their childhood."

One purpose of developing a research tool to measure youth materialism is to compare scores across time and cultures, Goldberg points out. He suspects today's adolescents are more materialistic than they were 20 years ago, in part because of marketing. Now more than ever, it's up to parents to keep materialism from running amok in their children's lives, drowning out other important values.

Marvin E. Goldberg, Ph.D., is Irving & Irene Bard professor and chair of marketing in the Smeal College of Business. He can be reached at meg9@psu.edu.

Last Updated April 03, 2006