Consumer class

Is Scotland paying a high price for the rise of materialistic aspirations among the young?

Emma Seith

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Materialism has reached "toxic" levels, affecting the mental health of young people, their relationships and their attainment in school.

That appears to be the conclusion reached by various strands of research - from Scotland's Centre for Confidence and Well-being, to the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel set up in the wake of the riots in England last summer, to a report last year by Ipsos MORI for Unicef into children's well-being.

All point to a growing compulsion to "buy stuff" and a glorification of celebrity culture. There has, it appears, been a behavioural shift in the last generation. And increasingly, the question is being asked what schools should, and should not, be doing to address the issues thrown up by young people intent on keeping up with each other in the acquisition of more and more branded goods and by parents unable to resist peer pressure.

Carol Craig, director of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being, based in Glasgow, believes materialism is a particularly British phenomenon, even among developed nations. She is focusing her organisation's efforts this year on the issues of materialism, celebrity and the unwholesome values they promote.

She tells of parents on low incomes forking out pound;90 for a pair of child's leather booties, make-up parties for three-year-olds, proms in primary schools, and mums more interested in dyeing their bodies orange than spending time with their children.

The consumerist values and the dog-eat-dog mentality of the wider world are rubbing off on our children, she warns. Too many lack the things that make for a good life - meaning and purpose, relationships, spirituality, being outdoors and being active - says Dr Craig, picking up a theme that has been explored by others in the past decade, from Sue Palmer's Toxic Childhood (2006) to British psychologist Oliver James' Affluenza (2007).

Consumerist messages emanate from everywhere - including charities that hold lavish gala fundraisers, and even schools which lavish praise indiscriminatingly, says Dr Craig.

Her contention is that schools are guilty of undermining basic standards of behaviour by rewarding things that should be taken for granted, like "good listening".

"Seven-year-olds are coming home from school with certificates for being `a good listener' - but surely they are expected to be good listeners? Is that not reducing standards and giving the wrong message? Our society is now shot through with this idea of people only doing things for some kind of monetary or other reward - not because the thing itself gives a feeling of satisfaction or sense of doing the right thing.

"Schools need to think seriously about how they are undermining basic standards by rewarding good behaviour for things that should be taken for granted. We are not encouraging schools to cultivate a sense of personal satisfaction," says Dr Craig.

Her centre's work this year is informed by the research by Tim Kasser, a professor of psychology at Knox College, Illinois, and author of The High Price of Materialism.

He defines materialism as "buying in" to a cluster of goals related to money, fame and image. People's materialistic values can be measured in terms of their motivation towards "attaining possessions, attractiveness and popularity", he says. There is extensive and consistent international research which shows that "people who are highly focused on materialistic values have lower personal well-being and psychological health than those who believe that materialistic values are relatively unimportant".

It's a finding that chimes with the experience of Carole Ford, who retired last year as head of Kilmarnock Academy and is a past president of School Leaders Scotland.

A growing number of young people genuinely believe they can be singers, footballers and footballers' wives, she says. More worrying still are the numbers who simply want to be famous - holding these beliefs saps their motivation to work hard, she adds.

"Why do your English homework if you're going to be famous?" is how she sees the attitude of a growing number of youngsters.

"A lot of kids are really striving to achieve in school to become doctors, lawyers and vets. But they are a smaller group and there is now a bigger group who aren't bothered because they think they are going to be famous: they are going to win the lottery, get picked for The X Factor, become a footballer or a footballer's wife. There are kids who really think one of these things will happen to them."

And she is particularly concerned about the youngsters who simply want to be famous, but don't care what for.

"They would rather have attention for doing something bad than have no attention at all."

She points the finger of blame at the media's obsession with celebrity culture, in particular soap operas and reality TV. This has led to an attitude among some young people that being wealthy is more important than what you do. She also believes that teachers are accorded less respect today by pupils, in part because they are perceived not to be high earners.

Ann McIntosh, vice-president of the AHDS primary headteachers' union, also acknowledges the impact of celebrity culture on younger children.

"They see on the television footballers and singers who make a fortune very quickly. That can lead to feelings of inadequacy. Some feel they can't ever be successful and just don't attempt it because they can't reach the standard they perceive to be acceptable."

Nevertheless, she argues that most primary schools have a strong set of core values and that the vast majority of families work well with them.

Maureen Baker, a member of Edinburgh's Froebel network, which promotes the approaches of the 19th-century German educationalist Friedrich Froebel, stresses the important role for early years professionals in delivering the right values to children when they are at their most impressionable.

"They need to look at the different theories out there and decide which bits matter to them - things like the importance of relationships, contact with nature, really respecting and listening to children and giving them life skills. We need to nurture children to have a social brain so that they are aware of other people around them, can empathise and realise they are part of a community working together for the good of the community," says Mrs Baker.

Curriculum for Excellence could be the antidote to materialism, with its focus on health and well-being and its four "wonderful" capacities, proposes educational psychologist Alan McLean, author of The Motivated School.

"Materialism is a symptom of a bigger malaise which involves people wanting more than their fair share. It's come about partly because of the increase in wealth, but also because of the breakdown in connection to family and religion which are balancing and protective forces. It's about trying to redress the balance, and that's where the struggle is," he says.

The depth of that struggle was underlined last year in research by Ipsos MORI on behalf of Unicef UK, which followed on from Unicef's pioneering report in 2007 that ranked the UK bottom in child well-being compared with other industrialised nations. The follow-up study compared over 250 children's experiences of materialism and inequality in three countries - the UK, Spain and Sweden (see below).

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

Earlier this year, the panel appointed by the prime minister, David Cameron, and his deputy, Nick Clegg, into the causes of last summer's riots delivered a report which laid at least some of the blame on an obsession with materialism and loss of family cohesion.

Its neighbourhood survey found that 85 per cent of people felt advertising put pressure on young people to own the latest products; 67 per cent felt materialism among young people was a problem in their local area; and 70 per cent felt steps needed to be taken to reduce the amount of advertising aimed at young people.

"By the age of three, almost 70 per cent of children recognise the McDonald's logo, but less than half know their surname. Equally, by the age of 10, the average child can recognise nearly 400 brand names," said the report.

The riots were particularly characterised by opportunistic looting and very much targeted at brands, says the report.

"Fifty per cent of recorded offences in the riots were acquisitive in nature. The panel was told that the majority of shops targeted stocked high-value consumer products: clothes, trainers, mobile telephones and computers."

It went on to recommend that the Advertising Standards Authority make the impact of advertising and branding techniques on young people a feature of its new school education programme to improve resilience among children.

So how can today's young people acquire the resilience to resist the pressures exerted by the "trainer culture"?

Not by following the example of England, where SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning) has received government endorsement, argues Dr Craig.

The feelings-based programme promotes five specific domains of emotional intelligence - self-awareness; self-regulation (managing feelings); motivation; empathy; and social skills - and has been adopted in 90 per cent of primary schools and 70 per cent of secondaries in England.

But Dr Craig is critical: "The idea of a systematic, taught approach to these skills is essentially a short cut, or a Band-Aid, when what is required is a range of much deeper-seated changes. The Unicef report indicates that the main barrier in the UK to child well-being is family breakdown. The report's editor also talks about the UK having a `dog-eat- dog' culture. The SEAL approach could easily be a time-consuming and costly distraction from the real issues."

As yet, however, CfE's focus on "confident individuals" has yet to acquire what Dr Craig describes as the "overly centralised feel" of SEAL. "But this could happen," she warns.

Schools could contribute to pupils' mental well-being by doing the following, she says:

- adopting a supportive ethos and building a school community;

- having well-trained, motivated teachers who can relate well to young people;

- modelling the type of social and emotional skills we would like young people to have;

- teaching all young people important literacy and numeracy skills;

- giving young people opportunities for development and having high expectations of them.


"I get home from work absolutely shattered, (because my job) is really demanding, and I get home and my daughter wants to play! And I think `Oh no!'" That is a UK mum sharing her feelings with researchers trying to uncover why, in 2007, the UK came at the bottom of a child well-being league table produced by Unicef.

Children in the UK feel trapped in a "materialistic culture" and don't spend enough time with their families, the researchers concluded in a report published last year.

They made an in-depth comparison of over 250 children's experiences across three countries - the UK, Spain and Sweden. They also observed and filmed the everyday lives of 24 equally-diverse families across the three countries.

One of the most striking findings was that parents in the UK said they felt tremendous pressure from society to buy goods for their children; this pressure was felt most acutely in low-income homes.

The research also showed that parents in the UK were committed to their children but they lost out on time together as a family, due in part to long working hours. They often tried to make up for this by buying their children gadgets and clothes.

In contrast, family time was prioritised in Sweden and Spain; children and families were under less pressure to own material goods; and children had greater access to activities out of the home.

However, in all three countries the children were found to want the same things. Their happiness was dependent on having time with a stable family and plenty of things to do, especially outdoors, rather than on owning technology or branded clothing.

The researchers said: "While most children agreed that family time is more important than consumer goods, we observed within UK homes a compulsion on the part of some parents to continually buy new things, both for themselves and their children. Boxes and boxes of toys, broken presents and unused electronics were witness to this drive to acquire new possessions, which in reality were not really wanted or treasured. Most parents realised that what they were doing was often `pointless' but seemed pressurised and compelled to continue."

This "compulsive acquisition" was largely absent in Spain and Sweden, they reported.

Children's Well-being in UK, Sweden and Spain: The Role of Inequality and Materialism: visit http:tinyurl.com85ejlpz


Isabelle Boyd, president of the Catholic Headteachers' Association of Scotland.

We do live in a celebrity culture where young people in particular are often encouraged to model themselves on film, TV and music stars or sportsmen and women - a culture where the 15 minutes of fame outweighs any other reward. Our work with young people has to focus on values and qualities. We should be asking young people, "What are the qualities you see in those you admire?"; "What qualities would you like to develop in yourself?" In essence, "What kind of person do you want to be?"

None of their answers will be about material wealth or celebrity. Their answers will focus on values - such as tolerance, respect, charity. Answers will be about poverty and inequality, about doing good, about helping those less fortunate. This is at the heart of what we do in school.

When Pope Benedict addressed young people during his visit in 2010, he told them: "Having money makes it possible to be generous and to do good in the world, but on its own, it is not enough to make us happy. Being highly skilled in some activity or profession is good, but it will not satisfy us unless we aim for something greater still. It might make us famous, but it will not make us happy. Happiness is something we all want, but one of the great tragedies in this world is that so many people never find it, because they look for it in the wrong places."

Young people need support and guidance. They are often confused and uncertain. They are constantly bombarded by explicit images on a whole range of media and given a false sense of worth and value. The role and the purpose of the Catholic school have therefore never been more important. Our role is to support young people in knowing what to hold dear, to have a moral compass and the ability to give an account of their values and beliefs.

The work being undertaken by the Centre for Confidence and Well-being is to be commended.

I would add one more thing - silence. We seem to have lost the art of silence and happiness in our own company. Everyone seems to need a soundtrack to their lives - on buses, trains, even out for a quiet walk we are accompanied by headphones. I urge everyone for their own health and well-being to seek silence.

As Pope Benedict told us in 2010: "Even amidst the business and stress of our daily lives we need to make space for silence, because it is in silence that we find God. And in silence that we discover our true self.

Original headline: Schools urged to reflect on their role in consumer culture

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Emma Seith

Emma Seith

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Emma_Seith

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