The average British child sees at least 10,000 commercials a year, many unsupervised – according to David Piachaud of the London School of Economics. The result is increased family conflict and greater pressure on poorer families. Piachaud says the case for greater regulation or legislation to protect children from exploitation is strong. The research is summarised in the latest edition of the ESRC magazine The Edge (and in pdf here).
One of the reasons for this growing commercialisation is the rapid increase in family incomes over the past fifty years (a threefold rise), which has meant that more money is spent on children, and by them. Advertisers have followed the money, which has created more materialistic demands by children. Toddlers can’t distinguish between advertising and programmes. Over the past century, the economic role of children has shifted from being producers (if largely unpaid) to consumers. One of the things they end up consuming, in effect, is a more solitary lifestyle, which is increasingly mediated through products, especially electronic products. (In this and below, I am summarising a longer paper by Piachaud. which has a good summary of the literature and a detailed analysis of the important trends, available in pdf.)
One of the results is that poor families end up poorer as they try to keep up, according to the National Consumer Council:
‘Advertising makes poverty bite. The children that have the least, in socioeconomic groups C2 and DE, are most interested in consumer and materialist concerns. This ‘aspiration gap’ is most marked in the poorest households’.
A broader effect of this “constant barrage of advertising” is that children may develop higher levels of materialism, and that this harms their psychological wellbeing.
One of the rights embedded in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation. But frameworks of rights usually assume that rights holders can exerise their rights for themselves. This is not the case for children. Piachaud argues that:
It is abundantly clear that children are weak in the face of the strong commercial pressures. It is also clear that these pressures increasingly intrude on intimate relationships within the family. It may therefore be that the law can and should be increasingly used to protect children’s rights to a childhood free from commercial pressures.
The paper reviews the arguments in favour of regulation or education as methods of protection, and concludes from this that there is a case for significnt market intervention:
“The evidence presented here suggests that the freedom of children would be substantially enhanced if commercial pressures were drastically curtailed. This might comprise:
- The end of all advertising and other commercial pressures, of any sort on any media, directly or indirectly targeted at children aged under 7.
- The end of all advertising directed at children aged 7-15 where this may have adverse effects on some children’s health, education, or their personal or social development.
- Control of this advertising to made the responsibility of a body whose primary concern is with children, rather than, as now, being left to self regulationby the advertising industry.”
It could be that the modest regulation introduced to address obesity concerns is only the start of ‘darkening’ the children’s advertising market. David Piachaud is more trenchant when interviewed for The Edge article:
“The evidence indicates that the freedom of childhood is being eroded and their rights ignored,” says Professor Piachaud. “Protection of children from commercial pressures is seriously inadequate. Each child should be free to be a child.”
The whole November issue of The Edge is themed around research on “Britain’s children”, including their health and education.