by Katerina Batzaki

Photo Credits: Glyn Lowe Photoworks

“I would like my children to lead less commercial lives, lives turned to education, to friendship, to being humane – that is very important for me, to be humane, because I don’t think people can be happy without being generous, humane”, says Maria Stankovic, a mother of two from the town of Belgrade in Serbia.

What's best for my child?

Μοst parents, like Maria, aim for the best possible upbringing for their children. But how many parents do actually have enough time to spend with their kids, feed them properly or educate them to become conscious consumers and not victims of advertising?

In a recent research project, the Worldwatch Institute Europe chose six European families from Serbia, Spain and Denmark to talk about their family life and children’s lifestyles. These families came from different professional backgrounds, some with and others without an academic background, some lived in a city and others in rural areas with at least one child between the ages of 4 and 12. But they all had one thing in common: parents spent very little time with their children, perhaps only in the mornings and the late afternoons or early evenings.

Sandra Cobos, a primary school teacher from Palma de Mallorca in Spain and a mother of two would rather work less and spend more time with her children: “I would like to work less time, maybe part time, so I could go and pick them at lunchtime from school and eat together with them’’, she says.

Who can blame her? In a recent European survey by Eurostat, 28% of respondents felt that they spend too little time with their family and 27% believed they spend too much time at work. Female employment rates have been on the rise in the EU, and dual-earner couples account for almost 57% of all couples in northern Europe.

Sandra Cobos says she chooses to make conscious environmental choices for herself and her family but in reality she hasn’t got the time for it.

The media family

All families from the Worldwatch study have been interviewed about the role of the media use in their children’s lives. Signe Hansen, a mother of two from the town of Odense in Denmark, lets her son watch TV when he comes home from school in the evenings as it helps him to relax. And, Lucia Ruiz from Spain agrees that TV helps bring the family together. “…we had a cinema session: Pop corn, nachos, coke. We like being together doing family things on the weekend when we have time.”, she says.

The question of whether the media makes or breaks family ties is an ongoing debate among many social media groups related to children. A recent Danish survey shows that an average child aged 5 to 16 years spends 41 and a half hours in front of a media screen, which is almost an adult’s working week. But whereas Danish children glue to the screen, Swedish kids too start become accustomed to a media screen from a very young age. A Swedish study shows that the age at which children start surfing the Internet has decreased from nine in 2005 to only four in 2010.

Children consumers from an early age

The minute that electronic media sets foot into the family’s way of life, consumerism through advertising becomes a natural addition to children’s appetites.

“Material possessions for sure do not make happiness, but they are necessary”, Maria Stancovits of Serbia says, adding that her family’s purchase comes with a great deal of stress due to the need to pay credit cards and loans. “It has been affecting my life in different dimensions. I’m only sorry because of my children, we would have been more relaxed, have more time to spend together, to teach them.” she adds.

In 2005, the average amount spent on children’s toys in the EU was €168 per child. Spending on toys was highest in Luxembourg, the U.K. and Denmark with an annual average of over €250 per child. Although European parents spend a substantial amount of their income on their children’s toys, more than half of them (52%) believe that electronic toys reduce the imagination of their children but due to the psychological effect of peer pressure, children feel the need to own electronic toys.

“Sometimes our son must have certain things to be a part of the community. I don’t want our children to feel bad compared to other children.”, the Jensen family of Denmark says. Therefore, consumerism is sometimes used to conceal deeper personal and family issues. As Sandra Cobos puts it: “Sometimes I have free time and I end up buying clothes for them, maybe it’s because I want to be with them and I cannot.”

Obesity behind marketing

The families interviewed in the Worldwatch study are generally concerned about the marketing campaigns promoting toys as gifts accompanying ready meals or other food products but all agree that marketing and advertising restrict their freedom to raise their children according to their own values: “You buy because of the marketing, not because you think it’s a good product. Just like McDonald’s and the toys. Then what is left at the back is the food. The present becomes more important. It’s very big for them.”, Sandra Cobos says.

If the toy in the box is determining children’s eating preferences it could also become one of the main causes of obesity in children. Eight in 10 of the respondents of a European Commission report consider that food advertising and promotion influences totally or to a large extent children's eating habits.

Sandra Cobos though makes sure that she is the one to shape her children’s eating habits. So, even when she is not there in the mornings, her children get healthy food on their table: “My mother cooks, every day fresh food, fresh vegetables.”, she says. “My children are scarcely ill and I think it’s because of the healthy food granny makes for them and because of the love she puts into that food.”

The Worldwatch report From Consumer Kids to Sustainable Childhood suggests as an alternative four quality principles: seasonal variation, a large variety of different meals, locally produced goods, and a high level of nutrition. Impressive steps have been made in for example Copenhagen, where 75% of school food is now organic and the municipality is working toward 90% of food in all public institutions being organic by 2015.