In contemporary consumer culture, children are targeted by advertising and other media with messages about what is beautiful and who is 'cool'. According to these messages, having the ‘right’ things and looking the ‘right’ way are linked with a positive identity, good personal relationships, and high social status. Yet we know almost nothing about the psychological impact of internalising materialistic and appearance-related ideals.
For adults and adolescents, the research literature already provides ample evidence that a strong endorsement of materialistic values is linked to lower well-being, and that those who pursue 'perfect body' ideals suffer higher body dissatisfaction and unhealthy body-related behaviours. Our research project is the first systematic examination of the impact of consumer culture ideals on children’s personal and social well-being.
This project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and led by Helga Dittmar and Robin Banerjee, combines in-depth interviews with large-scale longitudinal surveys and experiments to assess directly the causal impact of exposure to consumer culture ideals on well-being in children aged 8-14 years. This design allows us to examine whether and how children’s endorsement of central consumer culture ideals is linked to lower well-being. We are particularly interested in the hypothesis that the drive to attain these ideals is especially problematic for well-being when it is motivated by ‘extrinsic’ goals, such as the desire to improve peer status or power. Finally, we consider whether children with a positive and secure sense of identity are protected from negative effects of materialistic and perfect-body ideals, in contrast to youths who feel inadequate and unfulfilled.
Policy implications of the work include responsible advertising and marketing strategies, educational campaigns, and psychological intervention for children most at risk of negative well-being effects.