MindBullets 20 Years


Obese at 10 and bankrupt at 18, is this what we want for our kids?

Children, teenagers and young adults have become the target of aggressive advertising campaigns for everything from fast food to credit cards. The result of this relentless bombardment is a range of ‘addictions’ that sets them on the road to personal and financial ruin.

Thanks to the widespread use of credit cards, some 20% of young Americans under 18 can be considered clinically compulsive spenders. This is at least four times higher than any other group and is an addiction, pure and simple.

This problem is not limited to American youth. Thanks to the ongoing, targeted efforts of the fast food industry, obesity in young people has reached crisis proportions worldwide.

A report from Madrid think tank, ABC-III, states that mobile phone usage is now an obsessive-compulsive disorder and one of the biggest non-drug addictions of the 21st century – with the majority of addicts being teenagers.

They are at the vulnerable age, suffer from low self-esteem, shyness and succumb to aggressive marketing. They are hooked on the ease of getting in touch with people, without having to meet them.

Their management summary states: “Our youth, and therefore our society, is on the road to disaster. We need to create a generation of savvy consumers who look behind the hype and stay in touch with reality. It is time for formal programs in schools and at home. We need to ad-proof our children, it is a required life skill for the 21st century”.

Read the full story in the detailed Analysis/Synthesis section – for subscribers only

ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be


In global markets populated by the post-consumption consumer, that is you and me – people who have everything they need and almost everything we want, the quest for growth becomes harder.

Advertising and all forms of marketing becomes more aggressive in reaching ‘new’ market segments. A hotly contested and much targeted segment over the past 10 years or so has been the youth market. Modern life conspires to make this task increasingly easier. Parents everywhere want to give their children everything and want to make life as easy as possible for these kids. Media; magazines, movies, games, the internet, the cellphone – in fact media in all its forms, is pervasive and a normal part of the lifestyle of youngsters everywhere. It is easy to reach these youngsters, who have access to more and more ‘disposable income’ from doting parents.

The results are shocking. Obesity, compulsive spending, cellphone addiction these are but a few of the manifestations of unchecked and unbridled marketing pressure.

2004: Deeply in debt at 18>
Overwhelming credit card debt often afflicts young consumers, this is the view of federal bankruptcy judges in the US. They feel so strongly about the dangers of this that they have started a number of programs in trying to provide a cure.
James McKenna, a teacher at Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y., said he decided to invite Ninfo (Chief Judge John Ninfo of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of New York) to speak to his students after his own 14-year-old son received a pre-approved offer of a $100,000 line of credit.
Young people are caught up in our consumptive society with few reliable financial role models. They spend because everyone is spending , it is easy and they are constantly invited to spend through media and peers. They are not educated about credit and what it means.
Teen spending trends include; On the Internet, Compulsive buying, Being easy targets for credit, buying more when charged to credit compared to paying cash. For example; Fast food chains, like Wendy’s and McDonald’s, report that the cost of orders purchased using credit cards average 50% more than orders for which customers pay by checks or cash. †
†Source: “The long and winding road,” Credit Card Management, May 2001.
Baylor Prof. Jim Roberts says “Generation Y – Americans born between 1977 and 1997 – is turning out to be Generation $$ – a cohort of compulsive spenders.” He says that while 1-3% of baby boomers and 5% of Gen X’ers can be classified as clinically compulsive spenders , 10% of Gen Y’ers can be classified as compulsive spenders.

2005: Alienation through cellphone addiction
Cashing in on the young teens’ need for prestige and popularity and their shyness and early problems with self esteem, the cellphone market and in particular the SMS market continues to boom in many countries around the world.

Alienating themselves from face to face contact and spending money they don’t have these teens send and receive literally hundreds of messages each day. Psychiatrist say cellphone addiction is an obsessive-compulsive disorder that could become one of the largest non-drug addictions of our time.

Compromising their school results, getting deep into debt to pay for their addiction and even turning to crime to fund their habit. All of this because of the ferocity of the marketing and the teen getting access to technologies but no guidance on how to use them and what is involved.

Around the world recognition of escalating teenage debt is as a major problem is escalating. Most prominent is the USA where statistics and visibility about this issue is most readily available. This problem has just gained prominence in the UK around a prominent case of an 18 year old applying for bankruptcy. Reality is that it is by no means an isolated case. Social Services point to hundreds of families in trouble trying to deal with debt run up by their teenage children.

2006: Our children are getting fatter
Obesity in children must be the most written about topic in the market today. There is little doubt that obesity figures are rising at an alarming rate, despite the many programs and efforts. In the UK for example; In the past 10 years, obesity in six-year-olds has doubled to 8.5%, and trebled among 15-year-olds to 15% (From a 2004 bbc news item). The 2005 statistics shows an acceleration in the year on year growth rate.
There is even less doubt that advertising aimed at children plays a major factor and despite many negative articles companies are continuing on their way. Advertising companies rely on the ‘freedom of speech’ and freedom of choice arguments. They have appoint, we cannot regulate the choices of people, we need to educate and inform them. We need to allow the kids themselves to discover what they are eating and to form an opinion of whether they are happy to be such mugs or not. Children are wonderfully perceptive. All they lack is information and guidance.

2007: New Life skills curriculum proposed
Parents at a few progressive, private schools have been pushing for a new addition to the formal curriculum. They call it simply ‘Life skills for the 21st Century’. The first two modules that have been added to this curriculum is; ‘Let’s play the ad game’ and ‘Who is gonna pay?’

Both these modules have been developed as exciting games at various levels. It appeals broadly to young teens from the ages of 7 to 18.

‘Let’s play the ad game’ allows the kids to be inside the game, They can look at the adds, they can select their favourite food from say Burger King. They can then ask, are they telling the truth?, it looks good but is it good form?, what is in this meal? and the game will tell them the calories fat and so on. They can then ask what will happen if I eat one of these every day, every week and so on. The game is beautifully produced, uses popular cartoon characters and actors, it does not feel like learning but discovery. The feedback is graphic and funny, but also scary. This is the kind of insight we are hoping for: from a disillusioned little 10 year old consumer; “I love your food. But I am very disappointed. Your mouthwatering small milkshake, which I thought was healthy, is 620 calories and 32 grams of fat. Since you aim so many commercials at children, I believed you cared about our health”. (quoted from ‘The littlest skeptics’, Fortune magazine, 28 June 2004). The games record feedback which is made available to every company included in the game. The game is expanding continuously and most of the popular food brands are included.

‘Who’s gonna pay’ presents the realities of buying on credit in a fun games environment. The interesting additional aspect is that it encourages the long term use of its ‘budget’ model – A cool introduction to lifelong financial management.

2008: Do something – Please
This year brings continued bad news as teen spending rises, obesity claims more victims, cellphone usage continues its rampant growth worldwide and internet addiction in teens is escalate. Families are teetering under the debt burden of their offspring. College students are bankrupt before they work their first day in their chosen careers.

Many Government bodies are considering what action to take. Legislation is difficult to structure and difficult to enforce. There is pressure on Public Educational Institutions to add the Life Skills curriculum as a mandatory subject. There is resistance, because of cost, lack of skills and also lack of understanding about the extent of the problem. The skeptics also rightly point out that the curriculum needs to be supported by other services like counseling and exercise programs – and they are right.

Of course it is too early to measure the impact of the curriculum in the handful of private schools using it, however no one can argue that radical action is required.

We are at the tipping point. Parents need to put their weight behind this program. The problems are widespread, but will get much worse as these teens take these problems with them into adulthood.

Concerned parents, educators, celebrities and other supporters are launching a media campaign to promote support for these programs to be adopted.

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

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