Flu season has arrived, but some social scientists worry about another virus that's usually at its height between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's called affluenza.
Authorities describe affluenza as an unearned feeling of entitlement for luxuries, and it's becoming an epidemic, especially among children.
The primary symptom is overconsumption. John de Graaf, author of "Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic," describes affluenza as:
* A fever for shopping and spending.
* Swollen expectations about material needs.
* Decreasing immunity to the assaults of advertisers.
* Self-concepts defined by brands of clothing.
* A rash of debt by the time the victim leaves college.
Like the more standard flu, affluenza can be a minor inconvenience or a more dangerous infection. In many cases it manifests itself in a whiny, selfish child with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. But in some cases, that self-indulgent child grows into a self-indulgent adult looking for a free ride through life. Fortunately, when it's caught early enough, affluenza can easily be cured.
Warding off affluenza
Don't let affluenza affect your family and friends. Find out what it is and how to prevent it from hitting your wallet.
1. The disease
2. The cause
3. Treatment and prevention
Kids often define their identity with possessions, and these items become more important than relationships. This attitude progresses with the accumulation of more toys as years go by.
Childhood affluenza is not based on wealth. It's based on the values learned while children are growing up. When children from wealthy households are infected, the presence of the money becomes a disincentive for them to lead productive lives, says Wayne Rivers, president and co-founder of the Family Business Institute in Raleigh, N.C.
Jon Gallo provides seminars and workshops to his clients at The Gallo Institute, in Los Angeles, a company that focuses on raising children in an affluent environment. He's also come across less-affluent troubled families, some with incomes ranging between $40,000 and $50,000 a year. Even in these families, Gallo says, children request everything they see advertised and expect to get those $200 athletic shoes and designer jeans.
Scientists point to two primary causes: omnipresent marketing and parents who spoil their kids.
They fret over the children's exposure to advertising and marketing. Children are bombarded from the moment they get up until they go to bed, says Susan Linn, director and co-founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. The primary message, she says, is that acquiring things will make you happy.
"From school, television and numerous other sources, children see about 40,000 advertisements a year," says De Graaf. He describes affluenza as an airwave-borne epidemic.
The average 12-year-old child in the United States spends 48 hours a week exposed to commercial messages, De Graaf says, and only one and a half hours in significant conversations with their parents.
Some teenagers are getting messages from Hollywood, a place they look to for the latest trends and gadgets.
Carol Clark, a high-net-worth asset manager for the Lowry Hill wealth management firm based in Minneapolis, says children aren't just reading about the extravagant lifestyle. They get warped by reality TV shows such as "The Simple Life" on E! and MTV's "My Super Sweet 16."
"The Simple Life" chronicled the adventures of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, daughter of famed singer Lionel Richie, when they took on low-paying jobs while deprived of their everyday luxuries. MTV's "My Super Sweet 16" documents rich children marking their 16th birthdays with flamboyant celebrations.
De Graaf says poor children in places he's visited, such as a Guatemalan refugee camp and a landless peasant settlement in Brazil, appeared cheerful and resourceful despite not having any possessions, while their affluent counterparts in the United States are submerged in goods but feel deprived.
Gallo believes it's the children's exposure not only to commercials but also to peer pressure that offset parental modeling. Many parents are not making it clear to kids that they don't need to have everything that's advertised.
Wealthy parents have a challenge, says Linn, because there's less limit to what they can buy while lower and middle class families have more realistic limits.
In some instances, parents use gifts as a substitute for something that's priceless: time. Rivers, for example, finds that most of his clients work long hours and some will shower their kids with gifts as opposed to being physically present.
Treatment and prevention
Although it seems like the symptoms are incurable, childhood affluenza can be remedied. Begin by attacking the bug with a dose of communication and corrective actions to stop your child and yourself from overindulging. Don't let your children get away with nagging. Let them figure out for themselves what they can do to relieve boredom. Other steps to take are to put strict limits on television viewing and designating frequent, set times to have meaningful one-on-one time with your child.
Explain that you want to make some positive changes in the way the family is living. Don't just discuss what items you plan to take from them. Phrases, such as "more balance in life," "a simpler life," "fewer things but cool things," can be used in the discussion, says Bill Doherty, Ph.D., a professor and director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota.
Next, start protecting your children with sound financial advice.
"If we don't have conversations about balancing a checkbook, choosing a credit card, how to save some of our paycheck -- all those basic financial management conversations with our kids, then we are allowing 'My Super Sweet 16' and 'Platinum Weddings' to teach our kids about finances," says Clark.
De Graaf considers television the hot zone for affluenza and says children should also be taught media literacy so they are not manipulated. Two sites he recommends are www.consumerjungle.org and pbskids.org/dontbuyit. He also advises parents to work on reducing advertising at their children's schools.
For the more wealthy families, banks and business consultants offer counseling services that advocate honesty and philanthropy to children.
The consultants also suggest getting children involved with the family's charitable foundation and/or other organizations that help those in need. Klein says philanthropy can not only show the family's values and legacy, but also develop financial and life skills.
For older children in wealthy backgrounds, set up family meetings. These meetings promote one-on-one time and discussions about the families' financial business and philanthropic decisions. They can also include a financial adviser to help support financial education, as well as some fun events such as a family vacation.
Parents can set the standard by demonstrating moderation when acquiring items and promoting charitable uses of money.
Copyrighted, Bankrate.com. All rights reserved.