War against the sexualisation of childhood

5th August 2011 at 01:00
With girls admitting to dressing and acting in a sexualised way to `build their brand' and a mobile stock of porn serving as a status symbol for boys, parents and teachers fear that innocence is under attack

The figures make chilling reading for parents and teachers alike. More than a quarter of 13 to 15-year-olds in the UK have received sexually explicit text messages, while one in 10 children aged 10-12 and a quarter of 13 to 15-year-olds say they have seen sexually explicit images on the internet, according to a survey for the charities Family Lives and Drinkaware, which was published last month.

Shocking as these figures may seem, they nevertheless confirm a development that has concerned educationists and parents for some time: the accelerating sexualisation of young children in society.

Earlier this year, Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mothers' Union charity, led an independent review for the Westminster Government into the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood.

It highlighted parents' increasing worries about the lack of control they have over the sexualised environment to which their children are exposed. Parents, carers and professionals working with children were particularly concerned about sexually explicit music videos, outdoor adverts containing sexualised images, sexualised clothes and products aimed at young children, and the sexual content in family television programmes, said Mr Bailey.

Judging by media coverage in recent years, the most visible manifestation of the sexualisation and objectification of children has been the emergence of sexualised goods aimed at a young audience.

Retailers and even supermarkets have been condemned for selling padded bras and bikinis, animal-print hot pants, and even pole-dancing kits targeting children of primary school age.

Policy makers in Scotland were so concerned by this development that last year the Scottish Parliament's Equal Opportunities Committee commissioned a team of academics to assess the prevalence of such goods and the views of young people and their carers on their message and impact.

Young people, the authors found, were adamant they made their purchasing decisions for a variety of reasons, including comfort, fashion consciousness and parental input - not simply out of a desire to feel or look sexy.

"They were really very articulate about those decisions being very consciously made," said Dr Rebekah Willett, lecturer in education at London University's Institute of Education and one of the authors of the report.

A padded bra, for example, was often preferred by girls not because of its sexual connotations, but because they found it more comfortable, or because it was "less revealing because everyone kind of had a very similar shape", she explained.

Concerns remain, nevertheless, and the issue goes far beyond a supply and demand equation in the retail market. Glossy advertisements on billboards and in the media, as well as music videos on channels like MTV, where viewers are mostly in their teens and twenties, are increasingly becoming more revealing and provocative as they strive to stand out.

In April, the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom ruled that a racy performance by pop star Christina Aguilera and her backing dancers on last year's final of The X Factor, broadcast before the 9pm "watershed", had been "at the very margin of acceptability". The routine had sparked 2,868 complaints to the media regulator.

The role models presented online, in magazines and on television have had an impact on the way young people, especially girls, see themselves, experts believe. Tanith Carey, journalist and author of Where Has My Little Girl Gone?, said girls were caught up in a "perfect storm", constantly being bombarded by media influences.

"Girls feel at a younger age than ever that they can't live up to these stereotypes. That's when they get feelings of worthlessness or depression," she told TESS. The need "to attract attention or achieve validation through looking sexy and wearing provocative clothes" was tied to a lack of self-esteem, she suggested.

Linda Thompson, a development officer funded by the Scottish Government and based at the Women's Support Network in Glasgow, specialises in talks and workshops for young people, parents and teachers, on sexualisation and objectification issues. She agrees that girls' self-perception and the pressure on them to adhere to stereotypes can lead to risky behaviour.

"Our hyper-sexualised culture has created an environment in which young people are almost expected to brand themselves in a highly sexualised way in order to gain value and popularity," she said.

Girls started to believe that to dress and behave in a certain way, and to agree to engage in sexual behaviour, such as sexting - texting explicit messages or pictures - was a way to become popular, she said. Some as young as 14 had spoken to her about having to "build their brand", she added.

The choice, in many cases, was "to be invisible, or to be highly sexual. At that age, forming your identity, forming your ideas of peer group norms, it is very difficult for a girl to say: `I will be invisible, I will be the prude'," Ms Thompson said.

Pressure to adhere to stereotypes does not just affect girls. Boys often felt under pressure to behave in a certain way too, said Ms Thompson. "I think young men are being backed into very clear, tight gender rules," she said. "It is expected that part of masculinity is to be predatory."

Boys, therefore, were more inclined to ask girls for explicit pictures, with some collecting large numbers of pictures on their phones and on USB memory sticks, and even sharing and swapping pictures with their peers.

This has been enabled and supported by the emergence of social networking sites and constant accessibility of the internet, which has made it more difficult for adults to control the content to which children are exposed.

According to figures published by Ofcom in July, 79 per cent of children in Scotland have access to the internet at home through a PC or laptop, and only in a quarter of those cases were parental controls in place to limit their access to inappropriate content.

Scottish youngsters with home internet access spend an average of 11.4 hours per week online, the statistics revealed, although they did not include the 54 per cent of youngsters who are able to access the internet instantly from their smart phones (EU Kids Online).

Permanent internet access, combined with peer pressure and natural curiosity among young people, has also led to another concern for adults: children and young people's exposure to pornography.

The EU Kids Online study showed earlier this year that a quarter of children in the UK aged nine to 16 had seen sexual images in the past 12 months, and 46 per cent of these had seen them online.

Six per cent of children aged 11-16 exposed to sexual images had seen pictures or video of someone having sex online, the research revealed, and one in 50 had seen images, video or a movie that "showed sex in a violent way".

"Young men I have talked to have spoken about the pressure to say that they love pornography and carry it around with them, to have their stock of images on their phone," Ms Thompson told TESS. "Young men will say `I have to have my porn, because if I don't, people will call me gay'."

Free sites were especially popular with young people. "The supposedly amateur, user-uploaded pornography will be really popular with young people because it is free," Ms Thompson said, adding that often the content was "more extreme stuff" in terms of the levels of physical extremity and violence in it.

"Young people don't necessarily see the violence there; they don't look at it with an understanding that that is a human being that is happening to," she said.

But young people did not only encounter sexual content by choice. Often, they stumbled upon it accidentally, or were shown it by peers, she pointed out.

"I did work recently with a group of young women and they talked about how uncomfortable they are in the school setting, sitting in the classroom, with young men sitting at the back of a class watching porn on their mobile phones. They know this happens, but they can't challenge it, because if they do, they get labelled as a prude."

Sue Palmer, former headteacher and author of Toxic Childhood, said she was especially concerned about the impact of pornography on young people's perception of relationships. Exposure to online content such as "gonzo porn", which gives the illusion that it is being filmed by participants, failed to highlight the intimacy essential to healthy relationships, she said.

Ms Palmer called on the teaching profession to put its voice behind policy proposals such as UK Communications Minister Ed Vaizey's suggestion that a new communications bill might legislate for a mandatory internet filter so adults would have to "opt in" if they wished to access adult content from their computers or phones. Currently, parents and teachers have to put in place filters and protection to opt out of such content.

The Bailey Report recommendations, accepted by the Westminster Government, include a wide range of measures: a covering-up of sexualised images on the front pages of newspapers and magazines; measures to make it easier for parents to block adult and age- restricted material from the internet by giving them a choice at the point of purchase on whether they want adult content access; and guidelines for retailers on the design, display and marketing of clothes and products for children.

Mr Bailey told TESS that people working in education also had a role to play. While there was a primary responsibility on parents, educators also had responsibilities - firstly to help build children's emotional resilience by giving them the confidence to navigate the digital landscape in particular; and secondly to find ways of engaging parents in the debate.

The latter was much harder, he said. "Some parents will engage willingly, so you might find a discussion and awareness event oversubscribed, while others at a different school will not want to engage at all. I'm keen that we find better ways of engaging with parents to help them help their children."

The NSPCC, in its submission to the Bailey Report, also stressed the importance of building resilience in children to a sexualised environment. Jon Brown, head of strategy and development (sexual abuse), said: "We feel, and young people tell us this, that sex education is really important and we are told that it does not happen early enough."

Teachers often did not feel confident enough to discuss topics relating to sex with children and young people, and the NSPCC would like to see "at least some consideration given to special training for PSE teachers", he added. This would ensure each school had some staff confident in teaching the subject.

Girls told the charity they felt they would be able to talk more openly if PSE was taught on a single gender basis, Mr Brown said. The training of peer mentors was another measure the NSPCC would welcome, as most young people turned to their peers first for information about sex.

Ms Thompson urged teachers to make room across the curriculum to discuss sexualisation in a range of subjects, which could include biology, health and well-being and religious and moral education.

Tanith Carey, however, believes the role of schools in tackling the sexualisation of young people should go beyond curriculum subjects. Headteachers should help parents to become more aware of the problem, if necessary with the help of outside organisations and speakers, she said.

Heads also needed to consider seriously the appropriateness of events such as proms for primary school children and beauty tents at school fetes, and try to "set a standard and draw a line in the sand", she said.

The focus in school should not simply be on children's academic achievements, but giving young people, especially girls, self-esteem and belief in their own talents from an early age.

"A lot of it is about giving children capability, allowing them to achieve a sense of personal power, questioning the influences, about valuing our girls in a particular way," Ms Carey said. She urged teachers to be more aware of how their actions made children feel. "We have to remember that how we speak is how they think we feel about them," she said.

Police workshops raise awareness of internet dangers

Last spring, Central Scotland Police ran its first-ever seminars on internet safety for children, which included a talk on sexualised behaviour.

The three workshops in Stirling aimed to prevent crime by raising awareness of the way children were putting themselves at risk of sexual exploitation and risky behaviour online. They were well attended by teachers, parents and other adults working with children, and it is hoped more will follow in the future.

The one-day events were run by the force in co-operation with the Federation Against Copyright Theft, the Women's Support Project and Stirling Council. In addition to sexualised behaviour, they covered the dangers of illegal downloading and file sharing, and how to take control of children's online conduct.

"We felt it was important to show what some young people post on the web and explain how it can lead to serious consequences," Detective Chief Inspector Gordon Dawson told TESS.

Young people could be encouraged or "fooled into" posting sexually explicit images of themselves which could be a catalyst for meeting up with the person with whom they had been communicating on-line, he said.

"Sometimes this person turns out to be older than originally claimed and the young person has not told anybody where she is or who she is meeting. It is vital that parents and carers know exactly what their young children are doing online," said DCI Dawson.

Case study: Engender at Broughton

The equalities charity Engender Scotland is running a campaign to open up public debate on the "sexualisation and objectification of young women and girls in 21st-century Scotland".

The charity set out to assess young people's awareness of issues relating to sexualisation and objectification by carrying out a survey of 248 pupils at Broughton High and 60 students at Stevenson College Edinburgh.

The questionnaire asked about advertising practices, the "ideal woman" as presented by the media, as well as children and young people's internet use and contact with the media.

Results showed that many participants felt the media put pressure on men and women to conform to ideals, but their views on the seriousness of this issue varied widely.

In subsequent workshop sessions with 10 Broughton High pupils, split into one group of girls and another of boys, the charity's case workers discussed in more depth the portrayal of men and women in advertisements and glossy magazines, as well as stereotypes around masculinity and femininity. Changes in the shape of long-standing staples of children's entertainment, such as Disney characters, also featured.

Boys in their workshop said they felt men's magazines were heavily reliant on pictures, and that both men and women depicted in them looked "unrealistic"; girls likewise felt pictures in magazines and music videos were not a realistic portrayal of women and felt they were too physically revealing.

Engender project worker Rosaria Votta described the youngsters as very aware of the issues and "quite insightful".

"They were aware that pictures were airbrushed, and that it was all a show and not real, but there still was that sort of pressure. They still felt they needed to be that way or act in a certain way," she said. Girls felt this pressure more than boys, she added.

"If you are a boy, you are expected to play football and the magazines are geared towards a certain type of guy, but they felt it wasn't as much of a problem for them as it was for the girls in the class."

The pupils are currently working with Engender to turn their experiences into a play, which they hope to present to the Scottish Government's Equal Opportunities Committee later this year. The event will also be an opportunity for Engender to present initial findings of the campaign; its complete results and conclusions will be published at a later stage.

Original headline: Dressed to oppress? The war against the sexualisation of childhood

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