by Alexandra Hayles

We allow our children to make choices without having the information nor the capacity to take into account the consequences. The society in which we live in is using children to increase consumption. Marketing is aimed at a group in society that has no chance of assessing the consequences of their actions.

Illustration: Alejandra Bize

Keeping my two children away from the claws of the media is almost impossible in the society we live in. A recent Danish survey shows that an average child between the ages of 5 to 16 spends a total of 41.5 hours a week in front of a screen; which means that children’s media use is essentially the same as an adult's working week [1]. Disney is aware of the effect it has on children and is not shy to use its power over them. It is therefore very difficult for children not to slip into wanting 'this and that', coloured by attractive images and glitter. It is all a must-have!

In 2005, the average amount spent on children's toys in the EU was €168 per child [2]. I have seen small kids in shops sobbing, not comprehending why they cannot have a Disney DVD film. The other day I observed a little girl grab plastic jewels and necklaces from a shop as if they were berries hanging from a bush. One could see how the mother, who was hassled and busy, was not prepared for a scene and would give in to the situation by buying these cheap plastic toys. Later at the cafe, the little girl had thrown her new toys on the floor in anger and was having a tantrum for some reason or other.

It is hard for small kids to understand why they cannot have it all, and adults feel the pressure to give in. Today's marketing practices manipulate the psychology of modern families by exploiting their aspirations and fears. Since the 1980s advertisers have been working on finding the most attractive ways of getting children’s attention. There is little doubt that more and more, the younger members of the family influence their parents’ purchases. I heard on the radio just recently that banks would like to provide six-year-old children with credit cards. Why should a child who does not earn money have a credit card?

From food, toys, clothes, games, holidays, and more, kids influence and make decisions on what to buy. All that we buy has consequences on society and the environment. The life-cycle of a cotton t-shirt impacts the use of resources such as water, has a carbon footprint, and has issues regarding pollution, waste and social welfare for the people who produced the t-shirt. In simple terms, kids are influenced by marketing to consume but given few opportunities to understand the consequences of their purchasing choices – choices that influence the world now and choices that impact children’s future well-being. It seems that children have the right to consume but have little chance to know what they are actually buying and the consequences that their purchasing decisions have on society and the environment.

My experience with my own children when they 'must' have something is to explore the reasons for wanting something. Also having an open discussion about where things come from and how they were made can help. Although in making most decisions one has to weigh-out the pros and the cons, at least the choice not to consume, share and look for alternatives is possible in many situations. Although this is far from easy, it is better to be informed and have a choice instead of not knowing the consequences of ones actions.

Knowing the impact that our consumer society has on the environment and on human beings has led some children to take responsibility and act. Felix Finkbeiner and his friends at the children’s organisation Plant for the Planet are 'saving the world' one tree at a time. “Stop talking start planting!” is their motto. The right to know the impact of consumption as children is fundamental. Our society – at home and at school – has a duty to help children explore, ask questions and make decisions that impact the world they live in. It is also important for parents to be aware of what is happening so that they can take suitable action.

See also the Worldwatch report: From Consumer Kids to Sustainable Childhood

[1] TNS Gallup. Children and adolescence index Denmark, 2011.
[2] CBI. The toys and games market in the EU. CBI market survey 2007.