A young boy puts coins into a piggy bank, which is wearing a small golden crown.

Children who are materialistic have lower self-esteem, research suggests

Materialistic children are likely to have lower self-esteem – and the effect is starker if youngsters are from a deprived background, according to recent research.

The study, conducted by Agnes Nairn and Suzanna J Opree and published in the International Journal of Market Research, surveyed 557 UK children aged between nine and thirteen from a mixture of affluent and deprived homes. It aimed to measure children’s exposure to TV advertising, how much that exposure affected children’s materialist views, and the resulting impact of materialism on children’s self-esteem.

Young participants were each given a questionnaire, and asked to answer agree-or-disagree questions such as “I believe what they show in TV adverts”, “I have fun just thinking of all the things I own”, and “I would love to be able to buy things that cost lots of money”.

Self-esteem was measured with statements such as “I am able to do things as well as most other people” and “I feel good about myself”.

The researchers found that children from deprived homes watched considerably more TV than those from affluent backgrounds – and that deprived children were more likely to show materialistic tendencies. In response to the statement “the only kind of job I want when I grow up is one that gets me a lot of money”, 28% of affluent children agreed, compared 69% of deprived children. Similarly, 23% of affluent children, and 47% of deprived children, agreed that “I would rather spend time buying things than almost anything else”.

This demonstrates what psychologists call the compensatory consumption hypothesis: if you lack vital things such as good living conditions and opportunities, you will seek to compensate by acquiring highly-advertised, ‘desirable’ material things.

However, children in both groups appeared to have similar levels of self-esteem. Why is this?

Levels of materialism were found to have a negative effect on self-esteem for deprived children, but the researchers suggest that different pressures might be impacting the self-esteem of the affluent group: for example, feeling a need to perform well in school or at extra-curricular activities (which deprived children are less likely to have access to).

Interestingly, advertising was shown to have a greater effect on levels of materialism for children from affluent backgrounds. For this the researchers point to the theory of resonance: although affluent children in this study were less likely to believe the claims made by adverts, they are able to relate more to the advertised products and their associated lifestyles.

But for both groups, and indeed adults, acquiring what is maybe an excessive amount of material things comes with a warning – according to previous long-term research, it has worrying long-term consequences. Any boost in self-esteem provided by possessions is not permanent, and can create a downward spiral of worse wellbeing.