Affluence: Benefit or Handicap? (page 3)
Affluenza is the American paradox. Although Americans are twice as rich as they were 30 years ago, there has not been a corresponding increase in levels of happiness and well-being. During the same 30-year period, the divorce rate, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse have increased. The notion of affluenza has been advanced as a possible contributant to this disparity. The term has been coined to describe a condition that occurs when children view acquisition of material goods as a measure of their worth at the expense of more enduring values. Despite its name, affluenza is not confined to high-income families; its effects are widespread. The psychological symptoms of affluenza in developing children are reflected in low self-esteem, a sense of unearned entitlement, need for immediate gratification, and unrealistic expectations as to their role in society. Possessions come to have little value, and children do not have the opportunity to learn self-discipline, how to deal with disappointment, effective problem-solving strategies, and the connection between effort and reward.
In this issue of the NYU Child Study Center Letter we discuss the conditions that give rise to affluenza, such as increasing work demands on parents and cultural demands that emphasize consumerism. Also discussed is the impact of affluenza on children's social/emotional development as well as its impact on family life. Ways in which parents can act to interrupt the cycle and the negative impact of affluenza are presented.
Twelve-year-old Ashley explains why she didn't complete her math homework: "My Nanny picked us up from dance class late because she was confused and thought it was karate night. I planned to finish the assignment after we left the mall but by the time we picked up the take out and stopped to get the new Fergie CD, I was too tired. I only had enough energy to IM my four best friends on my new Motorola V3i, because we had to decide which matching Manolos and Sevens to wear today. Of course I had to watch MTV Laguna Beach on my plasma screen because I TiVo'd it last week. I barely had enough time to check My Space before I fell asleep!"
Many American children have expensive video games, top-of-the-line electronics, and high priced sneakers, and requests for the newest and the best are ongoing. Everyday children are influenced to buy more, spend more, and have more. As parents work hard to earn a good living, they find it rewarding to provide their children with many indulgences. Although Americans are twice as rich as they were 30 years ago, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse among children and adolescents have increased 100 to 200%. There seems to be a disconnect between the acquisition of material goods and level of well-being. Are we jeopardizing our kids and contributing to the family dysfunction called affluenza?
What is affluenza?
Affluenza is the term used to explain the unique problems and dysfunction that occur when individuals are in pursuit of money, wealth, and material possession at the expense of other sources of self-esteem and contentment. The term affluenza erroneously suggests an ailment of the wealthy, but in fact affluenza is a "disorder" among parents and children across all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.
Affluenza has reached epidemic proportions and has produced numerous symptoms detrimental to our children's social and emotional development. Contemporary affluenza researchers contend that if we do not begin to reject our culture's incessant demands to work harder, spend more, and buy more, our society will begin to pay later with significant effects thrust upon our offspring. The emphasis on acquisition of material goods can result in the following:
- Inability to delay gratification or tolerate frustration
- Difficulty maintaining interest in anything requiring effort
- False sense of entitlement
- Expectation of material goods without responsibility
- Loss of future motivation
- Life activities don't seem very real and nothing matters much
- Low self esteem, self worth, and loss of self confidence
- Approval dependent on possessions and status rather than on personal values
- Preoccupation with externals and habituation for more material goods
- Difficulty believing people like them for themselves rather than for possessions and status
- Inability to trust prevents true friendships
- Emotional energy becomes invested in material gains and sensitivity toward others declines
How does affluenza happen?
Affluenza often starts in families with well-meaning parents who want to give their children every advantage, but ends with the unintended effect of children believing that what they have is more important than who they are. Parents today are working harder and earning more money than ever before, and they can afford to pamper and indulge their children more than any previous generation. Simultaneously, peers and media marketing cultivate children's material interests and, by middle school, their desire for extraneous possessions begins to accelerate rapidly. Current annual spending trends are soaring, with children between the ages of 8 and 12 spending 19 billion dollars annually and teens' annual consumption is reaching 95 billion dollars. The majority of these purchases are clothing, video games, and cd's. Children are finely attuned to each other's acquisitions of Game Boys, Treos, and iPods. Considering this amount of consumption, it becomes quite challenging to teach the difference between wants and needs; for some children there is literally nothing they need that they don't already have. In addition, having too many options at their disposal makes it easy to switch interests and goals when the going gets tough.
The impact of affluenza on family life
Evidence supports the adage that money does not equate happiness. Studies find that overall, Americans spend 40 minutes a week playing with their children and members of working couples talk to one another an average of only 12 minutes a day. Thus it's not surprising that a survey of 1,000 American teens found that the higher the parents' socioeconomic status, the lower the reported parent contact per week. For some parents, generosity with things replaces generosity with time and can assuage their feelings of guilt.
As parents are working harder and longer there is a decline in old- fashioned family togetherness, such as talking during mealtimes, with the result that kids miss stabilizing character-shaping experiences. Many junior high school students are left alone with minimal supervision, chores, or household responsibilities and electronic sources become their companions and sources of information and guidance.
The impact of affluenza on children
Parents preoccupied with their own work and career advancement are apt to convey to their children that approval depends on performance, on what they do rather than who they are -- admission to stellar schools, academic achievement, participation in sports and other extracurricular activities. Indulgence often brings an insulation that keeps children from undertaking the expected challenges of childhood. Learning from varied experiences of success, failure, and frustration are the basis for emotional growth. Children who don't have the opportunity to learn firsthand are apt to give up easily when they meet with difficulty.
Recent studies suggest that children who are raised surrounded by wealth and indulgence are at greater risk for psychosocial and education problems, stress disorders, abuse, neglect, substance abuse, depression, and underachievement at rates exceeding their urban or middle class counterparts. Suburban youth were found to report significantly higher levels of anxiety symptoms, cigarette, alcohol, marijuana, and hard drug use. Unfortunately, children in suburban districts are less apt to receive help because parents and educators are not even aware that they are troubled, after all, "they have everything to make them happy and well adjusted." Unfortunately, recent longitudinal studies support the notion that one does not outgrow the psychosocial distresses experienced during adolescence. These difficulties are perpetuated through adulthood, increasing risk for poor quality of romantic relationships, less higher education, social impairments in work and family, likelihood of pregnancy before age 21, and lower overall satisfaction with life.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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