They also see the England football captain as both a "hero" and a "villain," and use his on and off the field actions to understand whether something is "right" or "wrong."
The study, into role of branding in the everyday lives of 7-11 year olds, revealed that celebrities dominate children's interests, even more so than the branded toys, clothing and other products which are traditionally marketed at them.
Of all of the sports celebrities, pop stars and TV presenters highlighted by the 150 children involved in the research, David Beckham aroused the most discussion and interest.
Whilst much of this focused on Beckham's achievements as a footballer and his role as a father, his desire to look good and the much-publicised claims surrounding his relationship with Rebecca Loos make him a flawed hero in the eyes of children.
"Understanding how children perceive celebrities like David Beckham and the other brands they encounter will help us to formulate better policies on responsible marketing to children," said Dr Agnes Nairn from the University of Bath's School of Management.
"We asked the children to tell us about the things they were most into, and were surprised to find that even amongst 7-11 year olds the most intense discussions were about celebrities.
"This says a lot about our celebrity-obsessed society and supports the idea that celebrities like Beckham have become branded commodities that are available for consumption.
"More importantly, though, is the role that Beckham plays as a complex cultural figure used by children to discuss moral values and understand 'good' and 'bad.'
"This realisation could help teachers create engaging materials for PHSE classes. For example, 'Let's discuss right and wrong today' may not be very appealing to children but, 'What do you think about Beckham being sent off?' would not only be guaranteed to get their attention, but would also stimulate important debates."
"We also need to understand a lot more about the complex social roles that both brands and celebrities play in what it means to be a child today, if we are to help them navigate their increasingly commercial lives."
Parents and teachers, it seems, have done a lot to encourage this interest in celebrities by using the story of David Beckham's career as a way of encouraging the positive attitudes of perseverance and hard work.
Despite being babies or toddlers in the 1998 World Cup, many of the children in the study were aware of Beckham's sending off in the game with Argentina and his subsequent rise to the England captaincy.
"Even though they were babies at the time, many of the children expressed admiration for the way he picked himself up after the sending off and became a stronger player and team captain following this low point," said Patricia Gaya Wicks, one of the authors of the new report, Beckham: Hero, villain or a bit of both? The children's viewpoint.
"It appears that their accounts have been shaped by the stories they have been told by adults, presumably with the intention to instil perseverance and hard work as qualities to strive towards."
However, a number of children perceived the care and attention he puts into looking good as him trying too hard, and accused him of showing off. Some children also expressed disbelief and discomfort at his obvious material wealth.
The research was funded by the University of Bath and conducted by Patricia Gaya Wicks and Dr Agnes Nairn from the School of Management and Dr Christine Griffin from the Department of Psychology in 2005.
For a copy of the four-page report, Beckham: Hero, villain or a bit of both? The children's viewpoint, go to: http://www.bath.ac.uk/news/pdf/beckham.pdf (234K PDF)
Notes The same research also shed light on how young girls treat their Barbie dolls once they had grown out of them. 'Babyish' Barbie under attack from little girls: http://www.bath.ac.uk/news/articles/releases/barbie161205.html
The University of Bath is one of the UK's leading universities, with an international reputation for quality research and teaching. In 19 subject areas the University of Bath is rated in the top ten in the country. View a full list of the University's press releases: http://www.bath.ac.uk/news/releases/
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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