Updated on 04.29.08

Born to Buy: How Consumer Culture Undermines Children’s Well Being

Trent Hamm

This is the thirteenth discussion in a “book club” series on Born to Buy by Juliet Schor, which focuses on consumerism issues and young children. You can jump back to the first discussion if you’d like. This discussion covers the first portion of the eighth chapter, “How Consumer Culture Undermines Children’s Well Being,” starting on page 141 until the subheading “Patterns of Media Use” on page 153.

born to buyIf the rest of the book wasn’t troubling enough, this chapter basically took it over the line. After reading it, I wanted to march downstairs, toss out every toy with a licensed character on it, and pitch the television out in the dumpster.

Chapter eight of Born to Buy describes the results of an extensive survey on the connections between children, media, consumer culture, and physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. The results are pretty disheartening, to say the least – there’s a direct correlation between media exposure and obesity, media exposure and antisocial behavior, media exposure and violent behavior, and media exposure and mental health issues.

Needless to say, this chapter was very intense for me. There were many specific aspects described here that reminded me of my childhood in many different ways, and I attribute most of those remembered experiences to setting the groundwork for my own rampant consumerism and subsequent financial meltdown. Let’s dig in to some of the more interesting – and troubling – specifics.

A Look at Some Specific Results from the Survey
As Schor describes on page 144:

The Survey on Children, Media, and Consumer Culture has now been taken by 300 children between the ages of ten and thirteen, in and around Boston, Massachusetts. These children come from varied socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, and span the spectrum from avid spenders and TV watchers to kids who are mostly isolated from commercial culture. Three hundred may sound like a small number in comparison to national polls, which typically start at a thousand, but within the psychological literature that are most closely related to this study, 300 children is actually a large sample size. Most important, it’s far bigger than is needed to establish statistical reliability and confidence in the findings.

In other words, this data holds up to scientific rigor. I went through a few of the references and Schor’s survey here is spot-on – it’s good science.

So what kinds of questions and answers were given? Schor provides a long list of questions and responses on pages 149 to 151. One result, however, really surprised me: 88.0% of surveyed children either agree or strongly agree that when they go somewhere special, they usually like to buy something.

In other words, a special event revolves around the acquisition of material goods for more than seven out of eight children. Somehow, that makes me really sad inside.

Another aspect of the survey I found disturbing is that a large portion of the children consistently believed that the brand of a product was directly connected to the quality of it – perception above reality. These are children aged ten to thirteen years old, and the majority of them are already convinced that two identical tee shirts can be distinguished in terms of quality if one of them says abercrombie and fitch on it.

The pervasive consumer culture is real, and it is altering how children perceive the world. The next piece of the chapter looks at the effects of that alteration.

The next discussion, coming in two days, will cover the next portion of the eighth chapter, “How Consumer Culture Undermines Children’s Well Being,” starting on page 153 at the subheading “Patterns of Media Use” and continuing until the subheading “Statistical Result: Consumer Involvement Undermines Children’s Well-Being” on page 167.

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  1. Becky@FamilyandFinances says:

    88.0% of surveyed children either agree or strongly agree that when they go somewhere special, they usually like to buy something

    Wow, that is surprising. The funny thing is, I’m *finally* just getting over this. On a vacation last summer, I only bought postcards to scrapbook to remember my vacation. Then, I didn’t even use most of the postcards in my scrapbook – they’re just too big.

    On my two most recent trips, my honeymoon to Jamaica and a trip to Washington DC, I bought NOTHING! I just grab the pamphlets at all of the places I go to (they’re free) and I take pictures. I use these things to make a scrapbook page about the trip – it’s the perfect thing, so much better than a t-shirt!

    Also, I have a friend that, when his family went on vacation when he was a kid, was only allowed to buy books. ex. If they went to Jamestown, he could buy a book about Jamestown. He’s an avid reader and the most knowledgable guy you’d ever want to walk around DC with!

  2. Johanna says:

    Six or seven years ago, when I lived in Chicago, I spent a day in one of the city’s museums. At closing time, as I was walking past the gift shop on the way out (because they set things up so that you have to walk past the gift shop on the way out), I saw a little girl, probably 3-4 years old. She was being carried out of the museum by her father, but she was squirming, reaching over his shoulder back toward the gift shop, and crying, “I want to buy somethiiiinnnnng.”

    I’m a grownup, but I recognize that little girl’s impulse in myself sometimes. I visit a special place, I have to leave, and I have the urge to take a little bit of the experience home with me by buying something. Not anything in particular. Just “something.” So yeah, I get that.

  3. scott says:


    Ive only perused this series but this recent one I wanted to look deeper. You do great work and you are on my must read list daily. As the proud parent of a 20 month old, I too find the correlation to good times and buying something disheartening. I know my most vivid positive childhood memory was a fishing trip with my dad for my 9th birthday. I have every intention of having my son say the same. Im curious if there are groups that govern how kids are marketed. I find it neauseting that Starbucks has a kids menu. Pottery Barn Kids? GAP Baby Its rampant and its up to the consumer to stop consuming which will never happen.

  4. Spoodles says:

    My family has an ongoing dilemma concerning toys and media. Since you’re doing this series, you’d be a great person to ask. Our family is very, very far outside the mainstream. We don’t watch television. We rent and buy DVDs sometimes, but we’re very selective about what we let our kids see.

    My in-laws, on the other hand, are not so conscientious. It has apparently never occurred to them that not all cartoons are appropriate for children. Nor are all toys acceptable, just because they’re marketed to children. Spongebob Squarepants, for instance, keeps finding his way into our home. It’s driving me nuts! I’m tired of the butt jokes and the gross gags. I’m fed up with the begging for everything to be Spongebob this or Dora that (at least Dora doesn’t have potty humor). I do not know how to curb this trend in our family. My mother-in-law has something new for the kids (especially the older one, who is her favorite) every time we see her, and they are coming to care more about the stuff than they do about the time spent with their grandparents. I’m also tired of stepping on toys that I wouldn’t buy my kids in a million years. I try to spirit them away while the kids are busy doing something else, but this method can only eliminate a small portion of what she is able to give them. I hate what my in-laws turning my children into.

    But my mother-in-law has a very thin skin. I’m scared to say anything for fear she’ll just never do anything for the kids again.

    I do appreciate the clothing and attention she’s given our kids. She really does love them and us, but she apparently hasn’t noticed the way we’re trying to raise our kids. She’s giving them too much useless junk and teaching them bad ways of thinking about material goods. Any sage advice from you or your readers?

  5. jacl says:

    I used to work in a bank and I heard this story from one of my customers — Her child wanted her to buy something and she tried to explain that it cost too much. Her child responded that if she needed money, all she had to do was to go to the ATM machine and get money.

    It was funny, but somehow it was also sad. The child did not understand that money is not somehow always “there” to be spent, but that it has to come from somewhere (from work, or a gift, or…).

    So, we set up a special savings account, a Junior Banker account, that the child could “control” (in that account the bank had, the child could put in and take money out, not the parents) and perhaps learn to manage at an early age, their spending habits.

    The scary part is that even older people may fall into this trap. My manager told me of college students who could not understand how they overdrew their checking accounts (by writing checks or trying to take out more money than they had deposited). One lady honestly told me that she couldn’t be overdrawn since she still had checks. And then there is credit card debt — sometimes it’s so easy to fall into that trap of spending more than you need. Sigh! I think we are all guilty of that at times. That’s why self- discipline is not easy.

  6. Marie says:

    My husband is like this and now my son is the same. I find it annoying! When we go on vacation, I feel like there is a vacuum hose in my purse the entire time. For what? More-Junk!

    Saw a new thing at Sam’s today… “Honest Kids” Yogurt! I won’t even comment on that one.

  7. imelda says:

    I totally agree about the urge to buy when you travel– what’s worse, when I’m traveling for work, if I don’t buy anything at a gift store or market my boss gives me strange looks and says “don’t you want to support the local economy?” Argh!

    But Trent, you kind of held out on us! I was hoping to hear more about what made you so outraged–more about the survey itself, and the things that set you off. Could you tell us more about the survey, what specifically the researchers found led to things like psychological problems? Or do we have to go read the book? :-(

  8. Saving Freak says:

    I have a few relatives like this and am subject to the same craving to take a piece with you. My strategy has become to purchase Christmas ornaments that are nice; not crappy. This way I do not spend too much money and I am able to spend a little time remembering the trip every time we put up the tree.

  9. Becky@FamilyandFinances says:

    I’m with imelda (comment #5). I felt the post was a little short and want to know more!

  10. Kate says:

    My dad used to have a rule when we would visit the many museums with the many gift shops. We could buy something (using our own money) only if it was made in the area or if it was a book. That cut out most, if not all, of the “junk” that we wanted. And we didn’t always even go in the gift shops if my dad decided that we really didn’t need to spend the time there. I pretty much raised my own kids that way, although my husband was more flexible than I was.
    I have struggled for years with feeling like if I went somewhere that I “needed” to buy something. Luckily I never really succumbed to the desire, although most of the purchases I did make aren’t all that meaningful for me. I recently went to London and bought one souvenir–a small Paddington Bear magnet at Paddington station–it cost me a couple of bucks. Instead we brought back food that we can’t easily get here, pictures, and lots and lots of memories.

  11. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “But Trent, you kind of held out on us! I was hoping to hear more about what made you so outraged–more about the survey itself, and the things that set you off. Could you tell us more about the survey, what specifically the researchers found led to things like psychological problems? Or do we have to go read the book? :-(”

    You have to wait two days. I split this chapter into multiple posts because there were a lot of things to write about.

  12. china says:

    “After reading it, I wanted to march downstairs, toss out every toy with a licensed character on it, and pitch the television out in the dumpster.”

    why not?

  13. Samantha says:

    Regarding the identical white tees – I went to college with a girl who’s parents owned a garment factory in Guam. (Talk about someone with too much money to spend)! Anyway, the factory produced knitwear (t-shirts) for the Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy. A white tee from Banana will run you $60 & a white tee from Old Navy $5. I find it very hard to imagine that two tees made in the same factory, using the same equipment, by the same underpaid garment workers are all that different in terms of quality – it’s all about brand perception & cost = quality perception.

  14. Ezra Israel says:

    You are talking about traveling but what about a simple walk in the neighbourhood? How often do you have to find an excuse of buying something in order to encourage yourself just to go outdoor? even if it’s only a coffee or an ice-cream

  15. Aren’t adults the same way. (Well, maybe that’s the issue.) I like to buy a souvenir when I travel. I’ll admit it.

    I think we (adults) associate brands with quality. For the most part, I’m pretty good about buying store brands at the grocery store. I’m surprised by the number of people who will immediately reach for name brands because they must be better. For the most part, I’m happy with store brands and off brands. There are exceptions, however. A lot of times, I’ll go for more expensive frozen pizza or ice cream because it tastes better in most cases. (HEB Creamy Creations Ice Cream is an exception to the exception, however.)

    Sometimes trusting a brand makes sense. My Tevas are expense, but they are comfortable and will hold up to several years of heavy use. And would you buy a car from a car manufacturer you had never heard of?

  16. James says:

    Okay, this is the best posting I’ve read all day. Thanks for taking the time to put it together.

  17. Mio from Holland says:

    Dear Trent,

    Maybe you shouldn’t worry too much about this as children always want to take home treasures. These can also be chunks of wood, leaves, flowers, brambles and other finds when walking in the woods.
    Maybe children ought to be taken out more to walk, cycle and climb trees instead of going to the mall or watch television!!

  18. MN Scout says:

    I never received allowance when I was young, and my parents didn’t support the souvenir idea. When on trips my parents made me buy souvenirs with my own money. I had to mow lawns and work hard to get the small amount I had, so I never spent the money on souvenirs. The couple souvenirs I have are not as meaningful as the photos I have.

  19. Greener Pastures: Responsible Personal Finance says:

    Kids are pummeled with media all day. Of course their newly forming values are effected by it. I’m not quite sure what the answer is, except exposing them to the alternative, and being good role models.


  20. getagrip says:

    Why is it surprising that when you go somewhere special, you want to buy something? This has been part of culture for thousands of years. You think the oracle at Delphi didn’t have people selling holy trinkets for luck? Or how about the pilgram sites along the trek to the holy land?

    Town or state fairs, vacations on the beach, many childhood memories form not just about experiences, but about remembering things that you rarely get otherwise (amusement park rides, smell of popcorn, waffle cones, Big stuffed cartoon characters, etc.). All of this helps make the memory.

    If you decide you don’t need to purchase souvenirs or something to remember the place by, that’s fine. Otherwise, just make a point of limiting it. There’s no real harm in allowing in your budget twenty dollars per kid on a trip as blow money, or letting them bring a chunk of their own allowance money to spend. Then when they’re picking things my first question is always, “that’s nice, how are you going to use it? (the follow-up is often “kind of expensive to just be sitting on a shelf.”)” or “Do you really want to spend all your money on that and not be able to spend it on anything else this vacation?”

    You’d be surprised at how the little wheels of their minds start turning.

    If all you do is shut down their ability to decide, chances are when they get a bit older they won’t discriminate among their purchases or they’ll rebel and buy all kinds of crap to their own detriment.

    Me, if I buy anything at all, I usually confine it to a t-shirt or hat, or something else I feel I’ll actually get some use out of.

  21. Jen says:

    I remember an exchange I had with a schoolmate when we were simultaneously on our first trips outside the U.S. (he was working in Toronto; I was studying in Scotland):

    Me: Do you ever feel like you have to have some kind of evidence that you’ve been somewhere or done something, just so you can prove to yourself that it actually happened?

    Him: YES. Why do you think I take so many pictures?

  22. Michelle says:

    I always like to buy things on trips too, but i agree with the above poster, that I will only buy something that is made in that region, or can only be found in that region. I dont need another coffe mug that says Italy on it, but a bottle of wine that was made there and is hard to find in the US was something I wanted to tak home with me. My general rule, if I can easily find this exact same item on the internet at home, I dont need to buy it.

  23. RedMolly says:

    This is really interesting, Trent, and I’m looking forward to your upcoming take on the survey.

    We are also a “media-deficient” family. We do have a TV (but no cable), but the only shows we watch are Jeopardy! and The Simpsons, neither of which tend to have commercials for anything my kids find interesting. No cartoons, nothing.

    Two things I’m wondering about, though:

    (1) My kids are total LEGO maniacs. They eat, sleep and breathe LEGO. And LEGO offers a free magazine, which is of course little more than an advertisement for more LEGO products. The kids devour every issue as soon as it arrives and read each one into shreds. (In fact, it’s about the only thing my seven-year-old will read, other than Calvin and Hobbes.) They love to talk about which LEGO models they want to buy and which they’d like to get as gifts. Do you think letting them subscribe to this magazine is encouraging a damaging consumerist attitude?

    (2) I travel for business several times a year, and when I’m gone for more than a couple of days, I usually bring my sons back a little treat. Most recently, I brought them each a stuffed animal from FAO Schwarz in Las Vegas (we don’t have an FAO in Portland). Do you think bringing them goodies is sending them the wrong message? I really just want them to know I was thinking about them even though I was far away. (And each of those stuffed animals gets played with every day and snuggled with every night. My kids are in that small percentage of children whose stuffed animals are more than just dust collectors.)

  24. Rebecca says:

    i know what you mean about the Lego magazine, It’s the same with my boys. They each get a small allowance, and can save it up to buy whatever they want. It will take them at least a month to get enough for a (small) Lego set. Sometimes they save up a pretty big amount before spending it, and are coming to relieze the necessity of making choices — if they buy candy today, it will take longer to get enough for that big thing they really want. We don’t buy them any toys, except one or two on birthdays and christmas — if they want anything else they have to save up for it.

  25. Kim says:

    I worked in a bra and girdle factory years ago. I can tell you that the ONLY difference between one brand name on a single style of bra vs. another is the number of pieces per dozen that have to be measured to specs. Strangely, some store brands had higher QC rates than some of the name brands. So, when I found the bra that is $36 at my department store as a store brand at an upscale department store for $20, I did not hesitate. That is a savings I can totally appreciate.

    I have a more difficult time in the grocery aisle where sometimes the difference in quality at least seems noticable. Certain generics are just fine, while others…

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