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Study takes rare look at how
materialism develops in the young
Business & Law Editor
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. —
As Christmas approaches, many people blame advertising for stoking the
desire among teenagers to own the latest and best in computers, clothes,
toys, video games, jewelry, sports equipment and cosmetics.
Some groups have criticized advertisers for manipulating children to
demand an endless array of consumer products, while others have decried
the creeping placement of branded goods in public schools.
But despite the finger pointing, relatively little is known about how
materialistic values develop in childhood and adolescence, a University
of Illinois researcher says.
“Materialism has long been of interest to consumer researchers,
but research has centered on adult consumers, not children or teens,”
says Lan Nguyen Chaplin, a professor of marketing in the U. of I. College
To get a better handle on the issue, Chaplin and co-investigator Deborah
Roedder John, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota,
looked at three age groups – 8-9 year olds (third- and fourth-graders),
12-13 year olds (seventh- and eighth-graders) and 16-18 year olds (11th-
The researchers used collages to chart the value placed on materialistic
objects such as “stuffed animals,” “money” and
“nice sports equipment” compared with non-materialistic
sentiments such as “being with “friends,” “being
good at sports” and ”helping others,” in making them
happy. The researchers also asked the children open-ended questions
about what made them happy.
The researchers found that materialistic values increased between 8-9
year olds and 12-13 year olds, but then dropped between the 12-13 age
group and 16-18 age group.
In a second study, the researchers determined that self-esteem was a
key factor in a child’s level of materialism. Children with lower
self-esteem valued possessions significantly more than children with
Moreover, the heightened materialistic values of early adolescents were
directly related to “a severe drop in self-esteem that occurs
around 12-13 years of age.” By using a test that primed high self-esteem
among the children, the researchers wrote that they “reversed
the large drop in self-esteem experienced by early adolescents, thereby
reducing the steep rise in materialism among this group.”
As a result, the researchers wondered whether proposed bans on child
advertising and other restrictions were the best approach to reduce
overly materialistic values.
“Our results suggest that strategies aimed at influencing feelings
of self-worth and self-esteem among ‘tweens’ (8-12 year
olds) and adolescents would be effective,” they concluded.
Their paper, forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research, is titled,
“Growing up in a Material World: Age Differences in Materialism
in Children and Adolescents.”