The Children's Consumer Culture Project



Recent reports have reflected concerns among parents, teachers and academics regarding the negative impact of consumer culture ideals, e.g., ‘wanting the ‘right things’ and ‘looking the right way’ on children’s well-being.  A BBC news report on a 2008 national survey suggested that childhood is becoming ‘too commercial’ and that children’s increasing focus on materialism and appearance is damaging well-being (  Indeed, UNICEF reported in 2007 that UK children’s subjective well-being (that is, how they feel about themselves and the quality of their lives) was the lowest among 20 OECD* countries (  However, there is clearly a need for further research to establish empirically the nature of these links and the potential underlying mechanisms behind them.

One theoretical explanation linking these ideals to lower well-being lies in the motives behind them.  Self-Determination Theory suggests that intrinsic psychological needs of close relationships, autonomy and competence, crucial to well-being, are jeopardised by the pursuit of money, possessions and ‘idealised’ appearance, which are more externally driven and unlikely to satisfy these basic psychological needs.  A complementary explanation, derived from Self-Discrepancy Theory is that consumer culture ideals are a symptom or consequence of underlying insecurity regarding one’s sense of identity (e.g., self-esteem, social status etc.) and that pursuing these ideals represents misguided and maladaptive forms of coping with this insecurity. 

While these two aspects of consumer culture are often presented in the media together (e.g., the body beautiful ideal is used to sell material things), the research literatures on materialistic and appearance values have largely remained separate.  Our research therefore sets out to gain a greater understanding of how these two aspects of consumer culture ideals impact upon children’s well-being.  

Empirical methodologies

Our emiprical studies involve a range of research methodologies, combining qualitative and quantitative data.  They include:

  • a qualitative analysis of interviews with 60 children and adolescents aged 8 to 15 years, focusing on their perspectives regarding the motives for pursuing materialistic and appearance-related ideals
  • the development and validation of new questionnaires to measure children's internalisation of consumer culture ideals, and their motives for endorsing such values
  • a large longitudinal survey of over 1000 young people, seen on three occasions over a two-year period, in order to assess relationships over time among consumer culture ideals, motives, identity, and well-being
  • experimental studies with approximately 240 young people, to examine the effects of temporarily priming different attitudes regarding consumer culture ideals or identity.