TWO seminars held recently in Perth titled Children’s Wellbeing in a Sexualised Society sparked discussion about the sexualisation of children in the media and the need for more stringent advertising regulations.
Flinders University law lecturer and President of the Australian Council on Children and the Media, Professor Elizabeth Handsley believes we are "imposing symbols of adult sexuality on children" that can have a damaging impact on development.
“Children are exposed to marketing, media and advertising that is inappropriate for their age,” says Professor Handlsey.
“Children can’t, and don’t need to, understand images placed in very public places, such as on billboards.”
The concern also lies in the way children are represented to themselves in publications, for example, sexualised poses and clothing, and the way they are encouraged to behave, for example, music videos which Professor Handsley describes as soft pornography.
She also describes the “corporate takeover of children” in which sex-oriented brands such as Playboy are acceptable for children to buy and wear.
Professor Handsley explains being vigilant about what children are exposed to does not mean taking sexuality out of children’s lives completely.
“We need to recognise that children are, of course, sexual beings, and it’s part of their development,” Professor Handsley explains.
“But the media portrays sex as more central to life than it actually is so children receive a distorted view of sexuality.”
“Being sexually successful is also linked to a certain appearance, especially for women, which, in turn, perpetuates gender stereotypes.”
Associate Professor Clare Roberts from Curtin’s School of Psychology and Speech Pathology agrees that the commonplace sexualisation of children across a variety of media is dangerous.
“The ones at risk are the children dressing up to make themselves look sexy and adult,” says Professor Roberts.
“There’s real danger in the possibility of teenagers and men taking advantage of that.”
Professor Handley argues that current regulatory bodies are not effective for the scope of today’s media, particularly with the internet.
“The industry displays a real lack of actual understanding of the problem,” she says. “We should be really concerned about their lack of accountability.”
Professor Handsley places the onus of responsibility on the media but recommends people complain about offensive advertising to the Australian Standards Bureau or local Members for Parliament.
“Most importantly, parents need to become good role models.”
“Empower yourself with the knowledge to be able to communicate openly with your children about these issues.”