UNICEF's Report Card 7 put the UK at the bottom of the child well-being table. Sweden and Spain were in the top five.
The research shows clearly that consumer culture is embedded deeply in our society in a way which is simply not the case in either Spain or Sweden. This impacts on child well-being in ways which are not necessarily immediately obvious and which have serious implications for policy on families and inequality.
It is not that children's values have somehow been directly subverted by the commercial world. The 250 children we talked with across all three countries and from all walks of life were not, by and large, avaricious or acquisitive and were perfectly clear that what they needed to be happy was not the latest iPod or Gucci bag but time with family and friends and stimulating things to do. But as children move towards the top end of primary school they imperceptibly but surely become enmeshed in an all pervasive arms race of acquiring the latest technology and trendiest fashions. It is a divisive process which nurtures bullying and heartache.
The advertising industry was asked by the Bailey Review to moderate the influence of commercial pressures on under 16s, to stop peer-to-peer marketing where friendship becomes commercialised and to make the machinations of the world of marketing more transparent to parents and children alike. It is clear from our research that children themselves (both those that can and those that cannot afford the latest cool brands) would welcome living in a climate where they can relate to each other for who they are rather than what they have.
In combating commercial pressures, the resource possessed by families in Spain and Sweden but lacking in the UK was time - time to talk with their children, time to discuss and negotiate, time to have fun and time for parents to be parents and children to be children. In Spain childhood is seen as a joyful time to be treasured with an extended family involved in ensuring that children have plenty of things to do and plenty of time to study and learn. In Sweden, within a strong culture of equality, children are involved in the everyday tasks of family life from a young age. Parents take time to teach and talk and children learn by doing how to become a responsible citizen. Time allows families to equip their children with the skills to function as resilient adults and citizens rather than as consumers.
So where does the time go in the UK? It goes on long working hours which means parents are tired and stressed and often don't have the energy to find those teachable moments. And whilst some are working just to pay the bills many parents work because of a deep seated and implicit belief that purchasing power is linked both to good parenting and happy children.
A prevalent ethos in the UK is that preparation for adulthood can be acquired with cash. It can be quickly and easily bought through the latest smart phone, or games console or cool T Shirt or theme park visit. Parents' great fear is that their child will be left out or teased and bullied through not having the latest gadget, gizmo and gear. There is a widespread belief that brands will somehow protect children from bullying and allow them to fit in or alternatively get ahead. This drive to purchase child happiness leads to more work and less family time which is the thing that children themselves actually want.
Of course we all know, when we have time to stop and think, that an iPad 2 will not secure everlasting happiness but when we don't have time - it's a pretty quick way to make our children feel good and to give ourselves a tangible signal that we've been a good parent. Yet when we have time to think we also realise that this happiness becomes ever more fleeting as the business strategy of planned obsolescence means that yesterday's techno-purchase is out-dated by today and we are locked into a continual cycle of updating and upgrading.
But this cycle of work-to-buy-to-display is pernicious on another level. It entrenches the stark social inequalities which exist in the UK because whilst time and discussion are free, consumer goods and particularly desirable branded electronics and fashion items are not. And ironically it is those who have least who are most driven to buy status goods. In a culture where we are what we own then when you don't have much then the impetus to prove that you are as good as everyone else propels you to the high street and then, increasingly, into debt.
Whilst the children we spoke to were not particularly materialistic in the superficial sense of the word, we could see that as they got older they began to assume the same implicit values as their parents which in turn will eventually lock UK society into a deeply entrenched kind of materialism - which is less about personal values of greed and more about an accepted and unquestioned consumerist way of living. The research is witness to the effects this has on families: too much time at work to buy too many products which are out-dated too quickly. And these effects are inevitably and inextricably linked with inequality.