Last Christmas, Kristi Stangeland, a mother of two who lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, made a grievous mistake: She bought her 14-year-old daughter, Erika Hinman, a shiny new MP3 player. But it was the wrong MP3 player.
"I tried to get away with getting her an MP3 player that was US$100 cheaper," Stangeland explained sheepishly.
"I was in the biggest dog box," she said, recalling Erika's crestfallen response. "She went to school, and everyone else had got an iPod for Christmas. It was like, `How come everyone else got one, and you couldn't buy me an iPod?' So we got one for her birthday two months later."
Although parents have long struggled with their teenagers' desire to own the newest, coolest stuff, these days the battle has reached a new dimension. While teenagers once coveted US$100 sneakers and jeans (arguably necessities because, after all, they are clothes), the must-have items now -- iPods, cell phones with cameras, and portable DVD players -- are high-tech, constantly in need of upgrade and can cost up to US$500 each. These items, which teenagers say they must have to maintain their place in the social pecking order, are increasingly out of reach for most high school students, who are less likely these days to hold part-time jobs.
Researchers who study child behavior call this pressure "nag factor" or "pester power," and often use it to describe how young children, in whom advertising has planted a desire for junk food or toys, lobby their parents. Now the same pestering is reaching a fever pitch among teenagers, who crave an ever-expanding collection of high-tech items they can't possibly afford.
The upshot is that more parents are finding themselves in the situation that Stangeland faced: footing the bill so their children can maintain social face.
"It's a good reason never to grow up," said Cary Silvers, vice president for consumer trends at Roper Youth Report, a nationwide poll from NOP World, a consumer research firm, which recently found that 18 percent of boys aged 13 to 17 surveyed owned an MP3 player, and that 37 percent owned a DVD player. But only 10 percent of the teenagers had a job, and on average they netted only US$29 a week.
"The bottom line," Silvers said, "is the majority of their purchases are subsidized by parents and other family members like grandparents."
It is a vortex of contemporary social currents: Teenagers' longing outstrips their ability to satisfy it and collides with most parents' hope to teach restraint and fiscal responsibility. The issue is not just pressing for the middle class. Teenagers of all economic groups are exposed to the same advertising and social pressures, and families rich and poor struggle with how and how much to provide.
"Parents are told by psychologists that they should pick their battles with their kids," said Susan Linn, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and Judge Baker Children's Center.
"But should they pick the iPod battle, the cell phone battle or the R-rated movie battle? I think parents are really struggling. There are more things for kids to nag them for, and because these things are expensive, they're likely to go for their parents," she said.
It is no secret that Apple's sleek iPod, costing US$99 to US$449, has become, to the US teenager, a de rigueur fashion item, not just a handy gadget.