Updated on 05.01.08

Born to Buy: Patterns of Media Use

Trent Hamm

This is the fourteenth 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 middle portion of the eighth chapter, “How Consumer Culture Undermines Children’s Well Being,” starting at the subheading “Patterns of Media Use” on page 153 and continuing until the subheading “Statistical Results: Consumer Involvement Undermines Children’s Well-Being” on page 167.

born to buyAs was discussed last time, this portion of Born to Buy focuses in on a very detailed survey of ten to thirteen year old kids in Boston and one unnamed affluent suburb of Boston. In the middle portion of the chapter, the media use and psychological health of the children are laid out but not connected.

Media Use
In a nutshell, the children surveyed watched television for an average of about 10 hours a week (the median was in the 6 to 10 bracket, but a small fraction of the children watched huge amounts of television – 30+ hours a week) and consumed other media sources about the same amount of time, if not more (media sources include videos, movies, computer use, and video games). That means the average child in this survey was spending about three hours every single day either watching television (or a video), using a computer, or playing video games.

For me personally, depending on the content of the stuff that they’re doing and the involvement of the parents, I don’t think this is a overly ridiculous amount, but exceeding it can easily make it so, as can exposure to morally and ethically conflicting material without parental involvement.

Modern life is full of media sources. If you’re reading this, as a parent in the modern world, you’re going to be completely unable to totally isolate your child from them without being hypocritical (after all, given Schor’s definition, The Simple Dollar would be an example of media use). The key, at least from my eyes, is parental involvement.

Take, for example, this nugget from page 153:

We asked only one or two questions about what children were watching and found that 19 percent in Doxley and 57 percent in Boston watch MTV or VH1 regularly., and quite a few watch every day.

This is an example of parental involvement (or lack thereof) in media use. If you’re near a television, flip on MTV right now. I’d say there’s at least an 80% chance that whatever you see on there represents some sort of value that you’d not want to see in your children, and that value is being glorified. If your child watches that stuff without context, then your child is going to adopt those values as being the right ones to have.

Well Being
In terms of well being, most of the children were pretty well adjusted, too. In the study, the children were shown to have a low average level of depression but were regularly bored and sometimes had headaches (but within what’s considered a normal range). In other words, much like the spectrum of media use, most of the children were in a reasonable range, but there were a handful of outliers (15-20%) that showed serious signs of poor wellness.

Similarly, the surveys indicated a generally positive relationship with parents. Again, about 80% of the kids seemed to have a generally good relationship with their parents – trust, love, and at least some mutual respect. The concern, again, is with that 20% of outliers – the ones who fight with their parents over and over again.

It’s easy to conclude from these two studies that there isn’t a well-being problem in children today, and for the most part that’s correct. The majority of kids today are well-adjusted and at least reasonably healthy. The concern, though, is with those outliers – what’s causing them to be out there on the tip? Even more worrisome, is there a connection between media use and personal and emotional problems? This data set is a perfect place to look – it seems to be a pretty normal sampling of kids with lots of data on these issues. Are they really connected? We’ll look at that next time.

The next discussion, coming in three days, will cover the final portion of the eighth chapter, “How Consumer Culture Undermines Children’s Well Being,” starting on page 167 at the subheading “Statistical Results: Consumer Involvement Undermines Children’s Well-Being” and finishing out the chapter to page 176.

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  1. Tori says:

    My mother said to me a couple of years ago that the problems my brother and I have had in our adulthood was due to the fact we were allowed to consume any and all media in our youth. In her view, we couldn’t handle the adult themes often presented to viewers/readers/listeners.

    On the surface, it seems like she’s right. There is Schor’s data to back her up. Also, my childhood contemporaries whose parents monitored their media consumption are tons more successful and well-adjusted than I.

    I don’t think the connection outlined in Born to Buy is iron-clad. Why? People have to consider that the houses where parents allow their children to consume unrestricted media are often the houses where the parents a) don’t want to turn off the damn tv because they might miss today’s episode of Oprah, b) don’t want to do anything with their children that wouldn’t involve media consumption or shopping and c) have their own problems that they are not working to mitigate or solve outright.

    The preceding was my experience, anyway.

  2. Tori says:

    Ok – what I’m trying to say here is the events that impacted my childhood in a negative fashion did not occur on a screen or in a book.

  3. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Tori – I agree that there’s a connection between overexposure to media and bad parenting.

  4. mp says:

    I’m 30 years old and my dad STILL tells me that I shouldn’t watch MTV because it will rot my brain! :)

  5. Susan says:

    This is a bit off topic, but I thought Simple dollar readers might appreciate my parents approach to preventing my sister and me from watching too much TV while growing up: we had to pay for it. Seriously, we got $2.00 of ‘TV money’ every week. We had to pay 10 cents per half hour of TV watched. When we were out of the $2.00 for the week, we couldn’t watch any more TV. With $4.50 for allowance, we stopped watching TV very fast, and started doing other things. We were also much more selective with shows we did decide to watch. Some of my friends think it was crazy, but if I have children (and a TV/video game system) I would seriously consider having them pay for these activities.

  6. Experts on Credit says:

    I definitely plan to monitor my children’s exposure to the media.

  7. Peter says:

    One benifit I’ve found is if an inappropriate subject comes up on a TV show it can be good sharing opportunities with the kids. My parents never, ever, spoke with me about sex and sexuality, drugs, how to deal with ackward situations, death of pets or people, etc. other than some lame “Don’t do it.” lines. I’ve been able, via media portrails, to broach these subjects in non-confrontational ways with my kids when it isn’t a crisis. We’ve talked about how tough it’ll be when their grandparents pass away, what kind of clothing sends what kind of message and to who, drug and alchohol use, and other ways to respond to tough situations than the character on screen just acted out. Often, we’ve made it perfectly clear we don’t want them to watch certain shows or movies, and they’re pretty good about it. We may not always agree, but I have a better idea how my kids will handle certain situations and they have a better idea how we as parents feel about things like teenage sex, drugs, tatoos, peircings, etc.

    You won’t, and can’t, monitor everything. However I’ve found the two biggest points to ensure some control are:

    No TV in their rooms.
    No Computer in their rooms.

    Both are in the common areas, and we can walk by, and often do, and comment fully on what they are watching or the web pages their on.

  8. Jonathan says:

    Where is the cooking blog? Wasn’t it to come out May 1st? Looking forward to it . . .

  9. Based on what you wrote, I don’t think that this particular study can really gauge “well being.” And it’s such a vague term. It may be able to show correlations with media use, however.

    I agree with you on media consumption. When you factor in all forms of media, that isn’t that much time. And you aren’t considering the media. While I realize there is a lot of junk out there, I think there is a point where your children could miss out if you completely ban all the media listed. Have you ever had a family discussion based on something in the news? What about finding answers to questions on the internet?

  10. Saving Freak says:

    I have to agree with Sally on the well being definition. I was only allowed to use the computer or watch tv for about an hour a day. My wife had even less exposure. I believe that she is much better off having not been exposed to what was on the television and with the lack of quality content that would be even more true today.

    My wife being a teacher now she sees first hand the lack of creativity and critical thinking skills of children who were not forced to go outside and play. They just expect everything spoon fed to them because they were never forced to problem solve and be creative.

  11. I agree that context is key. I didn’t watch tons of television growing up, and my parents talked to me about what I watched. I even remember having a subscription to “Consumer Reports for Kids.” Raising children with critical thinking skills will go a long way to combat the pull of advertising.

  12. TwoHandsAndARoadmap says:

    I am loving this series! It’s such an important topic.

  13. DivaJean says:

    You obviously can’t allow kids free range over the tv with no involvement. It is entertainment and as such, discussion of what is seen and how it reflects or opposes the family values is an important tool in helping kids define where they stand.

    Case in point- as a teen, I was allowed to watch whatever I wanted- but my mom would be there. And if it was contrary to what we as a family believed, we would discuss it as such. I remember (this will really show my age) when “James at 15” turned into “James at 16”- and the main character experienced his first time. We had MANY important discussions on this show and it helped me sort thru a lot.

    I realize today’s media is not the blushing golden sweetness of the 70’s I experienced and certainly I would not give my kids free reign of the tv (especially since they are still quite young)- but this is how I work with my kids when we watch.

    We also discuss how advertising is not always what it seems. Action figures and dolls always seem to be advertised in their own little worlds. We talk often about how you can’t buy that whole world and how its really more about making the toys look better. Often my kids find themselves building their own “worlds” rather than buying. Case in point- while my son is a bit of a Harry Potter fan, he has few potter toys. A few figures and his robe and wand. Otherwise, he’s out in the yard, building Hogwarts out of boxes from the recycle bin or making potions from mud and leaves in the yard.

  14. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “making potions from mud”

    This reminds me of about two thirds of my childhood.

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