Children and young people today are not only exposed to increasing amounts of extremely sexualised images, they are also sold the idea that they have to look ‘sexy’, a review commissioned by the UK government has found.

Sexualisation is the imposition of adult sexuality on to children and young people before they are capable of dealing with it, mentally, emotionally or physically. The review looked at how sexualised images and messages may be affecting the development of children and young people.

It noted that the world today is ‘saturated by more images than at any other time in our modern history’ and while sexualised images have featured in advertising and communications since mass media first emerged, ‘what we are seeing now is an unprecedented rise in both the volume and the extent to which these images are impinging on everyday life’.

“Increasingly, children are being portrayed in ‘adultified’ ways while adult women are ‘infantilised’. This leads to a blurring of the lines between sexual maturity and immaturity and, effectively, legitimises the notion that children can be related to as sexual objects,” it said.

The review noted that children and young people now have easy access to material that may not be appropriate for their age. It is already known that children learn vicariously from what they see, therefore this exposure can have a detrimental effect.

“Children and young people today are not only exposed to increasing amounts of hyper sexualised images, they are also sold the idea that they have to look ‘sexy’ and ‘hot’. As such, they are facing pressures that children in the past simply did not have to face,” the review emphasised.

It pointed out that as children grow older, exposure to this imagery leads to body surveillance, or the constant monitoring of personal appearance. This monitoring can result in body dissatisfaction, a recognised risk factor for poor self-esteem, depression and eating disorders.

The review also pointed out that children and young people are exposed to an unprecedented range of media content, through an ever-growing number of channels.

Furthermore, the proportion of that content which is sexual or even pornographic is increasing at a dramatic rate. Until relatively recently, there was a way to at least try and ensure that these were targeted to the right audience. However, there is no ‘watershed’ on the internet, and sexualised images and adverts may appear anywhere and are often sent indiscriminately to email accounts and mobile phones.

“With proliferation comes normalisation. It is no surprise therefore that when researchers examine the content of young people’s web pages they find that young teens are posting sexually explicit images of themselves on social networking sites, and self-regulating each other with sexist, derogatory and demeaning language.”

The review highlighted the role of magazines in the early sexualisation of children. It said that a dominant theme in magazines ‘seems to be the need for girls to present themselves as sexually desirable in order to attract male attention. Worryingly, there is also a trend for children in magazines to be dressed and posed in ways designed to draw attention to sexual features that they do not yet have’.

“At the same time, advice on hairstyles, cosmetics, clothing, diet, and exercise attempt to remake even young readers as objects of male desire, promoting premature sexualisation.”

In the case of ‘lads’ mags’, there is a high degree of highly sexualised images of women that blur the lines between pornography and mainstream media. The predominant message in these magazines, the review said, ‘is for men to be sexually dominant and to objectify the female body’.

The review also noted that in the past 30 years, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of sexualised imagery in advertising, including an increase in the number of sexualised images of children.

“Sexualised ideals of young, thin, beauty lead to ideals of bodily perfection that are difficult to attain, even for the models, which perpetuates the industry practice of ‘airbrushing’ photographs. These images can lead people to believe in a reality that does not exist, which can have a particularly detrimental effect on adolescents,” it said.

At the same time, marketers are effectively encouraging young girls to present themselves in a sexual way. Bratz dolls for example, are child-friendly characters presented in a notably sexualised way, while pencil cases and stationery for school children carry the Playboy bunny logo.

Padded bras, thongs and high heeled shoes are marketed and sold to children as young as eight. Such blurring suggests that it is acceptable to impose adult sexual themes onto children.

Women on TV meanwhile are far more likely than their male counterparts to
be provocatively dressed and scenes of violence against women are increasingly common.

Music channels and videos across all genres have been found to sexualise
and objectify women, who are often shown in provocative and revealing clothing and are depicted as being in a state of sexual readiness. Males, on the other hand, are shown as hyper-masculine and sexually dominant.

In relation to the internet, the review emphasised that ‘it is not now a case of if a young person will be exposed to pornography, but when’. Mobile phones meanwhile are increasingly being used for ‘sexting’ – the sending of sexually explicit messages.

With advances in technology, video games are also becoming increasingly graphic and realistic and many games feature highly sexualised content.

“The evidence so far indicates that it is time we critically examine the cumulative effect of the media messages to which our children are exposed and how we can mitigate any negative effects resulting from them. Installing filters on computers and locks on mobile phones are of course important. But sexualised content is everywhere and, often, children and young people are accessing it alone, in a setting that gives them no opportunity to ask questions or discuss their feelings,” the review said.

It added that parents are a powerful force in shaping their children’s attitudes to gender and sexuality and have a vital role to play in supporting their children to cope with and contextualise sexualised images and messages.

Schools can also help children develop the capacity to interpret and filter information and to recognise and value diversity, while businesses, such as clothes retailers, must also play their part.

“The mass media promotes and reinforces an idealised notion of beauty for both men and women, presenting standards of thinness for women and of muscularity for men that few can ever hope to achieve,” the review added.

It was carried out by psychologist, Dr Linda Papadopoulos, on behalf of the UK Home Office.

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