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Research shows UK children caught in materialistic trap

UNICEF UK calls for strong leadership from the Government to help families fight back against pressures in UK society

New research by Ipsos MORI for UNICEF UK has shown that children in the UK feel trapped in a materialistic culture and don’t have enough time with their families.

Following on from UNICEF’s pioneering report in 2007 that ranked the UK bottom in child well-being compared to other industrialised nations, the research released today gives an in-depth comparison of over 250 children’s experiences of materialism and inequality across three developed countries, the UK, Sweden and Spain.

Children in all three countries told researchers that their happiness is dependent on having time with a stable family and plenty of things to do, especially outdoors, rather than on owning technology or branded clothes. Despite this, one of the most striking findings is that parents in the UK said they felt tremendous pressure from society to buy material goods for their children; this pressure was felt most acutely in low-income homes.

The research also shows that parents in the UK are committed to their children but they lose out on time together as a family due in part to long working hours. They often try to make up for this by buying their children gadgets and branded clothes. Consumer culture in the UK contrasts starkly with Sweden and Spain, where family time is prioritised, children and families are under less pressure to own material goods and children have greater access to activities out of the home.

UNICEF UK’s Executive Director David Bull said, “Right now politicians are grappling with the aftermath of the riots and what they say about our society, culture and families. The research findings provide important insights into the pressures children and their families are facing and may speak to some of the underlying issues relating to the disturbances. It is vital that those in power listen to what children and their families are saying about life in the UK.”

“In response, the Government needs to show strong leadership by taking decisive action to help families fight back against the materialism and inequality that is so pervasive in the UK. They need to make sure parents earn enough to spend fewer hours in work and more time with their children, protect children’s play facilities from spending cuts and consider reforming the laws controlling advertising to children.”

Commenting on the research, Reg Bailey, Chief Executive The Mother’s Union, who led an independent review of the commercialisation and sexualisation of children earlier this year, added, “We all have a responsibility to seek ways of overcoming the sense of helplessness that parents feel in seeking to address materialism and inequality. Much can be done to remove some of the barriers that prevent parents from taking responsibility for their children’s wellbeing. If the Government is serious about creating a more family friendly society - and it has repeatedly set out to do so - then this report is to be welcomed for its thought provoking challenges.”

In response to the research UNICEF UK is calling on the on the UK Government to:

Ensure all its employees and sub-contractors receive at least a Living Wage, and work with businesses to encourage them to adopt the Living Wage. By earning a Living Wage parents would not have to rely on several, low-paid jobs to make a living, which affects the amount of time they are able to spend with their children.

Insist local authorities assess the impact of public spending cuts on children so that funding is protected for play facilities and free leisure activities for children and families is protected.

Take note of Reg Bailey’s recommendations about reducing the pressures of materialism on children and consider following the example of Sweden by banning television advertising aimed at children under-12. This legislation would prevent advertisements being shown before, during or after programs aimed at under-12s

Notes to Editor

For further information, to arrange interviews and for copies of the research please contact:

Alicia Jones, UNICEF UK Media Officer, by phone on 020 7375 6117 or 07738 014271 or email aliciaj@unicef.org.uk.

Quotes from children and parents that took part in the research:

”It was a great day on Sunday because … I spent time with my family, we had a day out … everyone was there”, age 12, UK

”If it is going to be a good day, I need to spend time with my best friends”, age 9, Sweden

”I’m not really spoilt because I don’t really get everything every day”, age 9, UK

”They have so much, I’m constantly getting rid of stuff because they’re being given stuff because things are so cheap, they’re just given stuff constantly”, mother, UK ethnography

”Like the Wii … all their wee pals had it and so I bought it and then they don’t look at it. It sits there. It’s like an ornament. It’s all they need it, they need it, they need it. It’s like a novelty for a wee while and then they’re not interested”, mother, UK ethnography

”No matter how much money they have, people still manage to put up a front of like they have money – the way to prove it is like, say they have an iPod, even if they save their money for years to buy it, and then instantly, they’ll be accepted into whatever social circle there is … You could live in a dustbin, and as long as you have an iPod, a Blackberry, then you’re accepted. Ok, it’s a bit of an exaggeration but you know what I mean”, age 14, UK

Background to the research

The research was conducted by Ipsos MORI and Dr. Agnes Nairn for UNICEF UK. Researchers followed 24 families in the UK, Sweden and Spain and filmed them to see how materialism and inequality affect children. Findings from this ethnography were then taken to focus groups with children to see what they thought. In total, the researchers talked to over 250 children in the three countries. The families and children were selected from a comparable range of socio-economic backgrounds and geographical locations in each country.

Sweden and Spain were chosen as comparators as they were ranked with the UK as part of UNICEF’s Report Card 7. Sweden had low levels of inequality and high levels of child well-being; while the UK and Spain had similarly high levels of inequality, yet child well-being in Spain was much higher (2nd overall) than in the UK.

The research was funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, but commissioned from Ipsos MORI by UNICEF UK as an independent piece of research. It was commissioned before the new UK Government took office on 11 May 2010. As a result the content may not reflect current Government policy and may make reference to the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) which has now been replaced by the Department for Education (DFE). The views expressed the research are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department for Education.

Dr. Agnes Nairn is a researcher, writer, consultant and speaker who investigates issues related to marketing, ethics and children. Agnes is Professor of Marketing at world-leading EM-Lyon Business School in France and author of the book, ‘Consumer Kids’. She also teaches at RSM Erasmus University in the Netherlands and Hult International Business School in London. She sits on the Executive Board of the International Journal of Market Research and has served on a number of government expert panels.

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