Comment: The market’s assault on childhood

Businesses are putting families under strain by unscrupulously targeting products at children. Parents need government and industry support to protect children from sexualisation and rampant commercialisation.

By Dr Katherine Rake

By announcing a review into inappropriate marketing targeting children, the coalition has addressed a very real concern of UK parents. At the Family and Parenting Institute we have had many conversations with mothers and fathers who feel childhood is under threat. David Cameron has pledged to make the UK the most family friendly society in Europe, and this is a laudable ambition. But he has a hard task ahead of him. A society in which children are subjected too early to marketing pressures cannot claim to be family friendly.

The commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood are interconnected issues. A number of unscrupulous businesses operating in the UK view children as soft commercial targets, knowing that ‘pester power’ is a quick route to parents’ wallets. This can place real financial pressure on families, creating conflict between parents and children.

Parents tell us that the commercialisation of childhood begins in the earliest years, with toddlers pointing out the toys they want from catalogues from an early age. 84 per cent of parents believe companies target their children too much. It’s hard to argue with them – the average child in the UK sees between 20,000 and 40,000 TV advertisements a year (according to think tank Compass). Meanwhile, the heavily commercialised online environment is taking up an increasing amount of children’s time. On the internet it can be especially difficult for children to distinguish what is and isn’t advertising. Research shows children from poorer families are more likely to associate happiness with material wealth. So it’s those children who feel most pressured to acquire more clothes and gadgets.

It is when the products or experiences on sale are sexualised that parents feel particular anxiety. Certain businesses know there is profit to be made by convincing younger children to crave items more suited to older teenagers and adults. They sometimes demonstrate little concern about the resulting stresses, confusion and body image issues that result.

Not even in school are UK children free from such pressures. In the spring of this year, we saw a number of reports of primary schools staging American-style school proms. Proms can of course be fun. But girls as young as 12 are asking their parents for money for spray tans, ball gowns and a hired limousine, while fretting over which boy might be their date. Schools should fight such the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood – not fuel it.

Overall, the responsibility in terms of this issue is shared between parents, government and businesses. Yes, much of the responsibility of shielding children from these pressures also lies in the hands of parents. But is the advertising industry really comfortable spending millions of pounds targeting children directly, then saying it’s down to mum and dad to stand up to them?

David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s passion for family friendly measures must be translated into policy. This review on marketing to children is a welcome first step – but the coalition must be pressured to deliver. Other nations around the world have led the way in terms of confronting corporate interests on this issue. Norway, for example, sent an emphatic message that childhood would not be put up for sale by banning all advertising to children.

UK business must play its part. Businesses should inform and educate employees, children and parents about their rights in the commercial world. Businesses must also ensure that self-regulatory codes are continually updated and policed. As technology moves on, and new forms of marketing are developed in a competitive marketplace, the codes must be actively rethought. We are also calling for clear labels on all advertising on websites used by children.

Beyond this week’s headlines, the debate must move on to the cumulative effect of commercialism on families, as opposed to the isolated effect of advertising on children. Childhood, and child-parent relationships, must be protected.

Dr Katherine Rake is chief executive of the Family and Parenting Institute.

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