Study takes rare look at how materialism develops in the young

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As Christmas approaches, many people blame advertising for stoking the desire among teenagers to own the latest and best in computers, clothes, toys, video games, jewelry, sports equipment and cosmetics.

Some groups have criticized advertisers for manipulating children to demand an endless array of consumer products, while others have decried the creeping placement of branded goods in public schools.

But despite the finger pointing, relatively little is known about how materialistic values develop in childhood and adolescence, a University of Illinois researcher says.

"Materialism has long been of interest to consumer researchers, but research has centered on adult consumers, not children or teens," says Lan Nguyen Chaplin, a professor of marketing in the U. of I. College of Business.

To get a better handle on the issue, Chaplin and co-investigator Deborah Roedder John, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, looked at three age groups – 8-9 year olds (third- and fourth-graders), 12-13 year olds (seventh- and eighth-graders) and 16-18 year olds (11th- and 12th-graders).

The researchers used collages to chart the value placed on materialistic objects such as "stuffed animals," "money" and "nice sports equipment" compared with non-materialistic sentiments such as "being with "friends," "being good at sports" and "helping others," in making them happy. The researchers also asked the children open-ended questions about what made them happy.

The researchers found that materialistic values increased between 8-9 year olds and 12-13 year olds, but then dropped between the 12-13 age group and 16-18 age group.

In a second study, the researchers determined that self-esteem was a key factor in a child's level of materialism. Children with lower self-esteem valued possessions significantly more than children with higher self-esteem.

Moreover, the heightened materialistic values of early adolescents were directly related to "a severe drop in self-esteem that occurs around 12-13 years of age." By using a test that primed high self-esteem among the children, the researchers wrote that they "reversed the large drop in self-esteem experienced by early adolescents, thereby reducing the steep rise in materialism among this group."

As a result, the researchers wondered whether proposed bans on child advertising and other restrictions were the best approach to reduce overly materialistic values.

"Our results suggest that strategies aimed at influencing feelings of self-worth and self-esteem among ‘tweens' (8-12 year olds) and adolescents would be effective," they concluded.

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Their paper, forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research, is titled, "Growing up in a Material World: Age Differences in Materialism in Children and Adolescents."

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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