UNICEF REPORT ON UK CHILDREN
Comparisons with Sweden and Spain – parents show less resilience in UK to pressures of consumerism
A report just released finds that parents in the UK feel powerless before the consumer pressures on their children. The study by Unicef, comparing families in the UK, Sweden and Spain, found UK parents buying high status brands to “protect” their children from bullying. In 2007, UNICEF’s Report Card 7: An overview of child well-being in rich countries, put the issue of child well-being firmly on the UK’s political agenda. When compared with 20 other OECD countries, including substantially poorer ones, the UK was at the bottom of the league table of child well-being. Subsequent Report Cards have shown that inequality among children in the UK is greater than in other countries. The UK was 18th out of 21 countries in Report Card 7 for levels of material well-being and 20th for subjective well-being. Sweden, on the other hand, ranked first for material well-being and seventh for subjective well-being. Spain was 12th for material well-being, yet had the second highest rating for subjective well-being. UNICEF UK commissioned Ipsos MORI and Dr Agnes Nairn to explore some of the reasons behind these statistics by comparing children’s experiences in the UK with those of children in Spain and Sweden. The research paid particular attention to the interplay between materialism, inequality and well-being to determine how children experience this relationship. Researchers explored children’s perceptions of inequality, and the ways in which this affects their well-being; the role of inequality in determining children’s aspirations and materialistic attitudes; and whether materialism itself affects children’s well-being. The report states ‘Our findings paint a complex picture of the relationship between well-being, materialism and inequality across Spain, Sweden and the UK. Time with family and friends and activities outside the home emerge as central to children’s subjective well-being, and material goods appear to be used by children often as social enablers rather than as direct contributors to their own happiness. Children in all three countries told us they wanted time with their parents and families, good relationships with their friends, and lots of stimulating things to do. In the UK, we found parents struggling to find time to be with their children, or to help them participate in sporting and creative activities. It was also clear that parents in the UK found it more difficult than parents in Spain and Sweden to set clear boundaries for their children. The research reveals that consumer goods play a multi-faceted role in children’s lives – sometimes positive and sometimes negative – and there is no doubt that status technology and clothing brands play their part in creating or reinforcing social divisions between the more and less affluent. While we saw all of these dynamics in Spain and Sweden, the pressure to consume appeared much weaker and the resilience of children and parents much greater than in the UK. Families in the UK appear to face greater pressures on their time and money, and react to this in ways they feel are counter- productive to children’s well-being. Parents found it very hard to challenge the commercial pressures around them and their children.’
Crucially, the message from all the children who participated in the research was simple, clear and unanimous: their well-being centres on time with a happy family whose interactions are consistent and secure; having good friends; and having plenty of things to do, especially outdoors. But in the UK parents were ‘obviously struggling to give children the time they so clearly wanted; in Spain and Sweden, family time seemed to be part of the fabric of everyday life.’
The recommendations of the report though are somewhat disappointing. For example: ‘UNICEF UK encourages the UK Government to focus more strongly on how its policies affect family life, with particular consideration of their impact on the time that parents and children are able to spend together. Our research shows that low-income families find this particularly difficult, and receiving at least a Living Wage would enable these parents to work fewer and more reasonable hours and have more time to spend with their children – essential from birth throughout the teenage years to young adulthood.’
Motherhood and apple pie spring to mind-but what in terms of policy levers do you do to deliver this? Silence, unsurprisingly, on that score.