• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Wednesday 09th November, 2011

Material boys and girls

Four years ago, the plight of Britain’s children came under the spotlight when a comparative study of child wellbeing placed the UK near the bottom of 21 of the world’s richest nations. Shock at the findings of the study, which sparked sensational headlines and a fierce political debate, was compounded by the fact that the analysis showed that the UK was by no means the poorest of the 21 countries investigated. In short, something other than wealth appeared to be affecting children’s wellbeing.In a bid to better understand this anomaly, and following the findings of a subsequent UNICEF report exposing the high levels of inequality in British society, UNICEF UK commissioned a qualitative study of family life and children’s experiences in the UK, Sweden and Spain. The study was in two phases. The first was ethnographic and involved observing the life of 24 families across the three countries. The second comprised in-depth interviews with 250 children aged between eight and 13. The study set out to explore the interplay between materialism, inequality and wellbeing to see what might explain the UK’s poor ranking. Sweden and Spain were selected for their contrasting levels of inequality and wealth, and high rates of child wellbeing.Across all three countries, the message of the children was simple and consistent: the key to their happiness was “time with a happy family whose interactions are consistent and secure; having good friends; and having plenty of things to do, especially outdoors”. Unfortunately, parents in the UK appear to be struggling to give children the time that they want. The long-hours culture in many workplaces, and the need for those on low wages to work long hours to earn sufficient to make ends meet, is keeping parents away from their children. The boundaries and expectations that govern family life seemed clearly defined in Sweden and Spain where family time is a part of the fabric of life, but sadly absent in the UK. Children in the UK, particularly as they got older or if they were from a poorer background, were participating less in the active and creative pursuits that they say contribute to their wellbeing. Poorer children seem to be spending more time in front of screens, while the more affluent had access to a wider range of sports and other pursuits. Across the three countries, children had a common view that it is not desirable to be “spoiled” and to get everything that you want. Most children valued the idea of waiting, saving up and earning material rewards. While they placed a value on certain branded goods and the latest technology, they did not see these things as central to their wellbeing.The UK stood out, however, in one important regard: the apparent compulsion, against their better judgment and perhaps to compensate for the lack of time spent with their children, on the part of parents to buy unnecessary new things for their children and themselves. By buying status brands, parents believe that they are somehow “protecting” their children from potential bullying. This phenomenon was almost completely absent in Spain and Sweden.As children get older, and particularly if they are from a poorer background, high-status brands appear to become more important, possibly as a way of masking financial and social insecurities. Again, this was far more common in the UK than in the other two countries.UNICEF UK concludes that inequality and materialism were having negative consequences for children in the UK and have urged the government to take action in three areas.First, to boost the income of the poorest, they recommend the government support the “living wage” so that parents could afford to spend more time with their children. They also believe that the government has a role to play in helping all parents better juggle family and work commitments through, for example, more family-friendly social policies.Second, they call on the government to require local authorities to assess the impact of public spending cuts to ensure investments in free play facilities and leisure activities.Third, they commend the UK to follow Sweden’s lead by banning television advertising directed at children aged under 12 to reduce the pressure of materialism.The problems of British society highlighted by this report - too much time in front of screens, not enough time with family, and parents’ compulsion to purchase material goods – will, no doubt, be seized upon by those who talk of ‘a broken society’ and moral decline. Some of them, however, may be less comfortable with accepting the conclusion that these problems might, in part, be caused by the vast gulf between the country’s richest and poorest. References:UNICEF (2011) Child wellbeing in the UK, Spain and Sweden: The role of inequality and materialism.UNICEF (2007) Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child wellbeing in rich countries. Florence: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.Linkhttp://www.unicef.org.uk/Latest/Publications/Child-well-being/

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