Children and young adults are bombarded with graphic sexual messages, from the programmes they watch on TV to the clothes they wear and the music they listen to. We ask what parents can do to protect their children from this growing threat
The sexualisation of prepubescent and adolescent children is a worrying and complex development in a modern, wealthy society. At the beginning of the year, Conservative leader David Cameron called for an end to the ‘inappropriate sexualisation’ of children, highlighting the fact that children are over-exposed to sexual imagery. A government-commissioned report by psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos on the sexualisation of young people was concerned about ‘lads mags,’ which they said should carry an age warning and also music videos that had a lot of sexual posing. The report also said video games consoles and mobile phones should be sold with parental controls already switched on, and that an online ‘one-stop-shop’ should be set up for the public to voice concerns about irresponsible marketing. The report said this ‘drip-drip’ exposure was distorting young people’s perceptions of themselves, encouraging boys to become fixated on being macho and dominant, while girls, in turn, presented themselves as sexually available and permissive.
We get some viewpoints and advice from Norah Gibbons, Barnardos Director of Advocacy and Central Services and Ruth Ní Eidhin, Communications Officer Bodywhys.
“In 2007, Barnardos carried out a childhood poll where they talked to parents about issues. Nine out of ten parents were concerned about how changes in society were contributing to over-sexualisation and also about inappropriate clothes being available to children.
Parents also were worried that outward confidence children have can give a false impression. This confidence shows a life experience that they don’t have. In reality, children are not ready to deal with stuff that’s directed to them. 79% of parents felt that their children were less safe then they were during their own childhood. Technology (the Internet) was cited as the main reason for this.
The Crisis Pregnancy Agency did a study in 2007 – which identified that parents are not talking about sexual matters to their children early enough. This, of course, results in children looking elsewhere for information. This is a problem. Children talk about sex to each other but they don’t always know what they’re talking about, which leads to the wrong information being passed around.
The accumulation of these things affects how children view what is expected of them. They are bombarded with images of how they think they must behave. This has a detrimental effect on their self-esteem. They ask themselves; “Why don’t I look that” Sufferers of anorexia are becoming younger and younger. And children are attending psychologists at a younger age.
It’s difficult for parents to find clothes in the shops for their young daughters that don’t mimic adult clothes. And these clothes are very cheap so children are able to buy them with their pocket money. I think parents should voice their concerns to these shops – otherwise the shops are not aware of the issue.
I would advise that parents try to make sure that their child is not absorbing unsuitable images. Banning does not work. But monitoring does – try putting the computer in the hallway or kitchen and do not allow your child to have a television in their bedroom. Our children and young adults value parents who set guidelines at home. Parents need to do their job properly – it’s not their role to be their child’s best friend.
Ruth Ní Eidhin
“There is certainly an issue with the constant exposure to images of one kind or another, and the fact is that increasingly, those images, media messages and advertisements are being aimed at younger and younger people. The ideas around how your body ‘should’ look and how you ‘should’ appear are being targeted at a much younger age than they previously would have been and I think there has been a real impact – even in terms of very young children being aware of the idea of ‘dieting’.
I would be wary of making a direct link between media messages and the development of an eating disorder, because an eating disorder is a complex condition and there is never a single reason for it. However, there is a clear link between a person’s environment and the kinds of ideas they are exposed to and how that person will feel about themselves, in terms of body image and self-esteem. Both of these are significant factors in terms of the development of an eating disorder.
In Bodywhys, we are currently in the process of upgrading our existing schools programme so that we can work with young people to boost their body image – a lot of this work involves education around media awareness and helping young people to challenge the images and messages they are exposed to on a constant basis.
In terms of our own services, the majority of calls about younger children would come from parents, and the children would sometimes be ten or younger. I know that in terms of doctors working ‘on the ground’ there has been a shift in the age of children presenting with eating disorders and that they are seeing younger and younger patients. Last year, we developed a specific resource for parents because of the number of parents contacting us looking for support.
In terms of promoting positive body image, I think parents can play a very important role in terms of explaining that all bodies are different and celebrating that diversity, and in terms of challenging the very narrowly defined ‘ideals’ that may be seen in the media. It’s also important to remind young people, in particular, of their positive attributes, and to emphasise ones that are not based on physical appearance.”
In the news
British clothes retailer Primark has stopped selling padded bikini tops for children after criticism that they sexualised young girls, a spokesman for the chain said today. Primark has been forced to withdraw the tops – which were aimed at the pre-teen market – from the shelves of its UK stores after children’s rights groups condemned their sale.
Jules Fallon is co-owner of 1st Options modelling agency and she operates a strict policy when it comes to child models. “I will not take kids whose parents are pushing them into it. I only take children who are three years and older. I don’t believe in kids using make up. A child is a child so treat them like one.”