Measuring materialism in children's books

Measuring materialism in children's books
Senior Rachel Franz reads from the children's book 'No, David!' -- one of the 30 books she's analyzed for their consumer and environmental messages. Credit: Sally McCay

( —Rachel Franz has read more than her share of books to young children growing up next to a daycare center, babysitting neighborhood children and working as a nanny. It didn't take long for the environmental studies major to notice a disturbing trend: continual reinforcement of materialistic behavior and consumerism.

Born out of concern for the children under her care and the picture books she was reading them, Franz decided to write her senior thesis on the subject with one primary question in mind: "How do children's picture books potentially deter or reinforce materialistic values and consumer culture?" She revealed her findings – among the first to focus on the role of children's literature in shaping material and consumer values – in her 196-page Honors College senior thesis, "Cultivating Little Consumers: How Picture Books Influence in Children."

"I read three or four books a night as a babysitter and started noticing how much greed there was in children's books and became deeply concerned," says Franz, who is double-minoring in studio arts and green building and community design. "I realized how damaging consumerism is to the environment and tied that to my love of children. This study was an attempt to reconcile the two."

Franz, who based her results on a of 30 picture books written between 1998 and 2012 from a list of Caldecott Medal Winners, New York Times bestsellers and librarian recommended books, found that picture books reflect, reinforce, and deter consumerism simultaneously with environmental messages serving as the most frequent way to counter consumerism. In the study, a number of picture books featured excessive amounts of toys, sending pro-consumer messages to children ages zero to six while others contained more outdoor-related themes that Franz says serve as a tool for countering consumerism.

Franz will be among more than 300 students presenting their research at the 2013 Student Research Conference on Tuesday, April 23 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Davis Center.

"The results of this study reveal that picture books have a significant potential to act as both an avenue for becoming consumers and a tool for countering consumerism" says Franz, who has a professional certificate in sustainable business practices from UVM. "In order to help children to become positive, connected, responsible individuals, we must improve the quality and consciousness of the media and their ability to respond to it. Picture books, whose tradition is to inspire imagination and offer refuge, are a fantastic place to start. I know I'll never read a book the same way again."

Coding consumerism

Franz, who cited a study showing a decrease in the number of interactions with the outdoors is resulting in "nature deficit disorder," created a comprehensive and unique coding system that identified 50 indicators across 10 categories representing different ways in which picture books can promote and discourage the consumer socialization of readers. Text and illustrations were coded to measure the occurrence of indicators of consumerism or counter-consumerism across five themes: individual material orientation, interpersonal material orientation, social norms, commercialization and environmental messages.

Some of the 37 pro-consumer indicators included "desire for more stuff," "material goods as a vehicle for approval/gaining friends" and "focus on objects instead of peers in social setting." Among the 13 counter-consumer indicators were "self-acceptance," "sharing," and "positive orientation to the outdoors/inspiration." Overall, the average book contained 5.34 indicators of pro and counter-consumerism. The most frequent number of instances among counter-consumer indicators were "outdoor engagement" and "creative/imaginative engagement," while "standard of living: above average" and "engagement with toys/games" topped the pro-consumer indicators.

The Pete the Cat books, for example, included pro-consumer indicators by showing Pete with a nice car, an expensive guitar, surfboards, and a significant number of toys located in an above-average home. Conversely, "nature immersion" ranked high due to the fact that "outdoor engagement" was found in 76.7 percent of the sample (23 of 30 books), with characters playing on playgrounds, skateboarding, biking or playing in the sand at the beach. Many characters go on walks, while others describe a "more emotional engagement in their natural surroundings" like feeling the wind, smelling the air or imagining riding a bird across the landscape in The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.

"Rachel took on an ambitious capstone research project that required great persistence in the design phase," says Stephanie Kaza, Franz's adviser and director of the Environmental Program. "Her thoughtful and meticulous analysis reveals important findings on the specific nature of consumer messages in children's literature. Perhaps her greatest triumph was sticking it out through the many challenging phases of such a major piece of independent work."

Putting research into practice

Franz is hoping scholars, parents, caregivers and educators use the information to offset other consumer drivers like television, video games and social media. She also hopes her research, which identifies leverage points for shaping consumerism through more careful selection of children's , is expanded to include classic books to examine how these values have changed over time.

"Most books, like our lives, have a combination of both messages," says Franz, who has worked as an executive assistant at a design firm during college. "Parents are the number one source for countering consumerism. I'm hoping this study encourages people to develop critical thinking skills around consumerism and to select books more carefully."

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Apr 18, 2013
And what about advertising during children's TV shows?

Apr 18, 2013
And what about advertising during children's TV shows?

Do you really need a study on those to tell you whether they send pro-consumerism messages?

Apr 18, 2013
When did "scientists" become such insufferable commies? Ah, when actual communist horrors were revealed at the end of the Cold War.

Apr 18, 2013
When did "scientists" become such insufferable commies?

This may enlighten you a bit (I know: it may tax your cranial capacity to the limit, but bear with me)
1) Scientist are smart
2) Scientists know they can earn a LOT more money in the private sector (doing some monkey-job at a company with regular hours, paid overtime, and no weekend work) instead of doing research.

From these two, simple facts you can deduce that almost all scientists aren't capitalist at heart. Never have been, and never will be.

However 'not being capitalist' doesn't equate to being communist. I think you need to educate yourself as to the many alternatives/ shades between the two. But that may tax your brain even more - so don't bother. Keep watching FOX.

Apr 18, 2013
NikkieTard observed that intelligent people are usually Socialists who have no difficulty understanding how organized effort brings quality and sensibility to life.

But not being particularly intelligent, NikkieTard incorrectly identifies the results of education with Communism.

"When did "scientists" become such insufferable commies?" - NikkieTard

NikkieTard's failure is a common failing among the uneducated, maleducated (Faux News) and the mentally ill.

Apr 18, 2013
This article makes consumerism sound like a bad thing.

Its not.

If not for the consumer-driven pace of technological development since ww2, we would not now be on the verge of colonizing other worlds.

Consumption drives innovation. This is why it has been forced upon us. Consumption has enabled the thorough subjugation of the human race and the conquest of the planet by the west.

Materialism gives people other things to do besides making babies.

How can these be bad things? They have saved us from self-destruction and given us a future.

Apr 18, 2013
it didn't take long for the environmental studies major to notice a disturbing trend: continual reinforcement of materialistic behavior and consumerism
Such a consumerism impacted the world of science as well. Most of scientific research becomes gradually useless and separated from reality. The number of articles exploded, but they're increasingly trivial or solely abstract. The publications are generated for publications - not for contribution for human society.
..Scientist are smart Scientists know they can earn a LOT more money in the private sector..
This is just an illusion - many of them are individualist freaks separated from practical and effective thinking. They cannot think economically.

Apr 18, 2013
So she doesn't object in principle, to children's books having messages, as long as she agrees with what is being preached?

Apr 18, 2013
It is best that children not be indoctrinated into the global economic failure that is best exemplified by Corrupt American Capitalism.

Gluttony, Ignorance and Self Deceit should not be promoted.

Apr 18, 2013
It is best that children not be indoctrinated into the global economic failure that is best exemplified by Corrupt American Capitalism.

Gluttony, Ignorance and Self Deceit should not be promoted.

But this has given you a place to spout VD. And much to spout about. You should be grateful.

Commercialism made the internet. It simply would not exist without it.

Apr 18, 2013
False. Government funding created the internet.

Al Gore created the structure that opened it to general public use and public funding at CERN produced the first hyperlinking browser that made easy access to web content simple enough for the general public to use.

At that point it grew in large part due to piracy of pornographic images, video, and software.

"Commercialism made the internet" - Otto


Apr 18, 2013
Why would you want to counter consumerism? It's a great thing, whether undertaken by private or state actors.

Consumerism in itself doesn't cause any harm. All industry needs to diminish the negative externalities of production, but it shouldn't mean a mandate of less products. A life purely built on necessities would be rather boring.

Apr 18, 2013
False. Government funding created the internet.
But commercialism made it what it is today... planetwide, monsterous, all-encompassing, multiphasic.

Without commercialism it would have remained a quaint little dialup bulletinboard for geeks. Absolutely.

The People who conceived it as the replacement for analog communication knew full well that MONEY alone could do this. The great propaganda engine and religion replacement, HOLLYWOOD, was grown in the same manner.

Apr 18, 2013

"But commercialism made it what it is today... planetwide, monsterous, all-encompassing, multiphasic." = Otto

Porn and Piracy did that.

Commercialism has been nothing but parasitic, and now seeks to destroy it's original host.

Apr 20, 2013
"In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation." -- Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

Apr 21, 2013
Sustainability = Agenda 21
Carbon Tax = Agenda 21
Social Responsibility = Agenda 21

Google it and educate yourself. This is an appalling and hideous example of indoctrination of our children with the ideals of Agenda 21--a seemingly-benign and beneficial government plan to "conserve the ecosystem". It is absolutely none of these things. Agenda 21 is an insidious global elitist-devised agenda to create a one-world power structure disguised as an eco friendly plan for increased diversity, effective worldwide thanks to the UN. Once in full effect, it gives US citizen's land rights away, as well as control over their food and water consumption to the government.

Only you can stop it. It will only be to your impending peril if you disregard this message. You will be the one who allows the enslavement of the lower and working classes by a corporate police state. Choose well.

Apr 21, 2013
Ok, put your tin foil hat on and wait for the doctors.

Apr 22, 2013
Re: Agenda21

Popular fear mongering from the loony Conservative black helicopter/ propeller head crowd.

Apr 22, 2013
Clarinetman is onto us, so if he wants to join the side that's winning, he (or anyone else who is interested) should come to our Global Illuminati Headquarters in Switzerland and join up. The GIHQ is cleverly disguised as a garden gnome factory, so it will be easy enough to find if y'all ask any Vottar Óðins who also speaks Illuminatese... :-)

The password is "Gå grön eller gå sönder."

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