COVER STORY: How toxic culture exploits our children
by Linda Papadopoulos
News Weekly, April 3, 2010
As a result of increasing public concern over the impact on children of sexually-explicit material in the media, magazines and the internet, last year the British Home Office's Violent Crimes Unit commissioned an inquiry into the sexualisation of children, conducted by one of Britain's leading child psychologists, Dr Linda Papadopoulos. The introduction to her alarming 104-page report, released on February 25, is published below.
When I was approached by the Home Secretary to conduct an independent review on the impact of the sexualisation of young girls on violence against women, I genuinely welcomed the opportunity to take a critical look at this area. As both a psychologist and as a mother, I was very aware that this was a topic that was gaining increasing amounts of attention both in academic literature and the popular press.
Although the original intention of the review was to focus on how sexualisation is affecting girls, it quickly became evident that we could not talk about girls without acknowledging the concomitant impact on boys and the hyper-masculinised images and messages that surround them.
The scope of the review was therefore widened to encompass the sexualisation of all young people and to look at how hyper-sexualisation and objectification of girls on the one hand, and hyper-masculinisation of boys on the other, perpetuate and reinforce each other. Throughout the course of the review, what has become very apparent is that sexualisation is a multi-factorial issue and therefore needs to be approached from a range of perspectives, taking into account not only the emotional and cognitive development of children but also the influence of family, culture and society as a whole.
Over the past months, my team and I have reviewed hundreds of articles from the fields of psychology, sociology, education, politics and media. We have interviewed people working on the front-line with abused children and abusers.
We have spoken to young people, parents, teachers, clinicians, academics, policy-makers and lobbyists. What came across loud and clear is that this is a very emotive issue - and so, I wanted to ensure that the evidence was presented as objectively as possible so that a public debate could ensue and informed decisions about how to address these issues could be made.
This is not an opinion piece; the evidence and arguments presented within this document are not based on conjecture but on empirical data from peer-reviewed journals, and evidence from professionals and clinicians. Behind the social commentary and the headlines about inappropriate clothing and games for children, there are the real statistics, on teenage-partner violence, sexual bullying and abuse that need to be acknowledged and addressed.
In addressing these issues we must not forget that sexual curiosity is a normal feature of childhood and therefore we need to provide young people with the tools that will enable them to deal with sexual content safely and successfully. I believe that providing our kids with a set of realistic, non-exploitative representations of gender and sexuality would go a long way towards ensuring their healthy emotional - and sexual - development and promoting gender equality.
How have sex, sexiness and sexualisation gained such favour in recent years as to be the measure by which women's and girls' worth is judged? While it is not a new phenomenon by any means, there is something different about the way it occurs today and how it impacts on younger and younger girls.
Violence against women and girls is unacceptable, whatever the circumstances and whatever the context. In March 2009, the government launched the Together We Can End Violence Against Women and Girls consultation in order to raise awareness of the problem and explore policy proposals and ideas designed to help prevent violence against women and girls. This report forms part of that consultation.
This review looks at how sexualised images and messages may be affecting the development of children and young people and influencing cultural norms, and examines the evidence for a link between sexualisation and violence. The report looks at examples of the prevalence of sexualisation in culture and proposes mechanisms by which sexualised messages are being internalised and the consequences of these on young people.
The world is saturated by more images today than at any other time in our modern history. Behind each of these images lies a message about expectations, values and ideals. Women are revered - and rewarded - for their physical attributes, and both girls and boys are under pressure to emulate polarised gender stereotypes from a younger and younger age. The evidence collected in this report suggests that these developments are having a profound impact, particularly on girls and young women.
Sexualisation, learning and development
Healthy sexuality is an important component of both physical and mental health. When based on mutual respect between consenting partners, sex fosters intimacy, bonding and shared pleasure. Sexualisation is the imposition of adult sexuality onto children and young people before they are capable of dealing with it, mentally, emotionally or physically.
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, too, 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.
A number of factors shape the way children and young people are responding to the sexualisation of culture. One of the most significant is the individual child's age and level of cognitive and emotional development.
Regardless of a child's level of sophistication, when it comes to internalising media and advertising messages, there is a large body of research from developmental psychologists that attests to the fact that young children do not have the cognitive skills to cope with persuasive media messages. There is also the cumulative or "drip drip" effect of exposure to sexualised messages, themes and images over time and in diverse settings. Children and young people now have easy access to material that may not be age-appropriate. Core cognitive learning and developmental theories demonstrate that children learn vicariously from what they see, and that exposure to themes which a child is not developmentally ready to cope with 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.
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. Indeed, there is a significant amount of evidence that attests to the negative effects of sexualisation on young people in terms of mental and physical health, attitudes and beliefs.
If we are going to address this issue, then young people need to develop and grow in surroundings where they are admired for their abilities, talents and values. It is important to stress, however, that in the diverse, multicultural UK context, cultural, religious and class backgrounds will invariably influence the family's role in mediating sexualised media content and views of what is appropriate and acceptable.
The psychological ramifications of sexualisation, from violence in teenage relationships to self-objectification, are seen across diverse class systems, suggesting that the issue of sexualisation is not confined to either a single race or class.
Mainstreaming of pornography
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 e-mail 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.
In order to genuinely understand one of the main factors at play here, namely how young people internalise the messages they are exposed to, it is important to look at the social scripts children are being influenced by and what makes children susceptible to them.
Magazines, marketing and advertising
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 boys, "lads' mags" contain a high degree of highly sexualised images of women that blur the lines between pornography and mainstream media. The predominant message for boys is to be sexually dominant and to objectify the female body.
Over the past three decades there has been a dramatic increase in the use of sexualised imagery in advertising. While most of this imagery features women, there has also been a significant 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. 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. 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, and potentially relate to children as sexual objects.
Television, film and music
Women on TV are far more likely than their male counterparts to be provocatively dressed, and scenes of violence against women are increasingly common. A recent report found that depictions of violence against women on TV had risen by 120 per cent since 2004, while violence against teenage girls rose by 400 per cent.
There is also a significant under-representation of women and girls in non-sexualised roles in films. In the 101 highest-earning family films between 1990-2004, over 75 per cent of characters were male, 83 per cent of narrators were male, and 72 per cent of speaking roles were male.
By missing the chance to present girls with a diverse range of characters to identify with, the visibility of more hyper-sexualised heroines will inevitably have a bigger impact.
Music channels and videos across all genres have been found to sexualise and objectify women. Women 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.
Research into the often sexual and violent content of music lyrics is comparatively thin on the ground. However, an important connection between sexualised music lyrics and their influence on shaping young people's early sexual activity is that the causality is not just related to the sexual content of lyrics, but also to their degrading nature.
Over 80 per cent of young people use the internet daily or weekly, and around a third of 8-11-year-olds and 60 per cent of 12-15-year-olds say that they mostly use the internet on their own. Almost half of children aged 8-17, and a quarter of those aged between eight and 11, have a profile on a social networking site such as Bebo, MySpace or Facebook.
While sites set age limits (typically 13 or 14), these are not generally enforced. Social networking sites allow children and young people to create online identities. Girls, for instance, report being under increasing pressures to display themselves in their "bra and knickers" or bikinis online, whereas boys seek to display their bodies in a hyper-masculine way showing off muscles, and posturing as powerful and dominant.
Sexualised self-presentation could also mean that young people are exposing themselves to danger: recently, public attention has focused on the use of social networking sites to sexually solicit underage children and young people.
With the rise of the internet, it is not now a case of if a young person will be exposed to pornography but when. Before the mainstreaming of internet access, it was asserted that the average age of first exposure to pornography was 11 for males; however, latest research suggest that this age is now much lower.
A recent YouGov survey found that 27 per cent of boys are accessing pornography every week, with 5 per cent viewing it every day. The survey also found that 58 per cent had viewed pornography online, on mobile phones, in magazines, in films or on TV.
Another study showed that a quarter of young people had received unsolicited pornographic junk mail or instant messages, while almost one in eight had visited pornographic websites showing violent images.
By the age of 15, 95 per cent of young people have their own mobile phone. Mobile phones allow young people easy access to all kinds of online content, regardless of whether or not it is appropriate. Figures show that in 2007, mobile phones were the UK's biggest distributor of pornography.
The use of mobile phones as a tool for bullying, controlling or monitoring a dating-partner has attracted considerable media attention recently, and was frequently raised during the evidence sessions held as part of this review. Mobile phones are also being used for so-called "sexting" - the sending, often unsolicited, of sexually-explicit messages.
With advances in technology, video games are becoming increasingly graphic and realistic. At the same time, children are more and more likely to play games without adult supervision: three-quarters of 12-15-year-olds have a games console in their bedroom. Many games feature highly sexualised content and there is a notable lack of strong female characters.
The link between violent content and aggression has been cited in several studies, and it is widely accepted that exposure to content for which children are either emotionally or cognitively not mature enough can have a negative impact. Whereas parents are not likely to allow their children to watch an 18+ film, they are much more lenient when it comes to allowing their children to play age-inappropriate games. This may be because they do not fully understand either the realism or the themes that these games contain.
Parents, schools and corporations
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 is 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.
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. However, parents can also contribute to the sexualisation of their children in very direct ways. For example, by reinforcing self-objectification through encouraging or supporting the use of cosmetic surgery as a means of "fixing" poor body confidence or self-esteem - a phenomenon that is increasing at an alarming rate.
Schools can help children develop the capacity to interpret and filter information and to recognise and value diversity.
Businesses must also play their part here. There have been numerous reports over the past few years of how major high-street retailers have promoted, and then on second thought withdrawn, clothing, games and products for children that are undoubtedly age-inappropriate. There is a clear role here for government to support and promote corporate responsibility.
A footnoted and referenced version of the full report from which this article is taken is available at:
Dr Linda Papadopoulos, Sexualisation of Young People Review (UK Home Office, February 2010).