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Kids Growing Up Too Fast, Author Says

Liz Freeman
Naples News
October 22, 2008

NAPLES — A 3-year-old throws a temper tantrum when her mother won’t let her wear a shirt with sparkles, a gift from relatives who had told her before how pretty she looks in it.

Seven-year-old girls playing in the school courtyard bully one classmate for being slightly overweight and they call each other names.

“Seven-year-olds are calling each other sluts and they don’t know what it means, and this is rural New Hampshire,” said Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, author, and frequent guest on national television programs about children’s issues.

Levin’s most recent book she co-authored is “So Sexy So Soon: Protecting Children in a Sexualized Society,” and she will be the featured speaker at a symposium on the topic Saturday at Edison State College in Fort Myers. A panel discussion will follow led by a physician, psychologist, educators and others. The symposium is sponsored by Edison College and the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida.

The program from 8:30 a.m. to noon will be held at the Barbara B. Mann Hall at the college. Admission is $10 for advanced registration and $20 at the door. Register online at

Levin also is a founder of the Campaign for a Commerical-Free Childhood, a national coalition of health-care professionals, educators, parents and advocacy groups working to limit the commercial culture focused on children and to “reclaim their lives from corporate marketers,” according to the group’s Web site.

Currently the group has filed comments to the Federal Communications Commission regarding “embedded advertising” and is asking for a ban of the practice in children’s programs and other programs where children are the likely audience.

The FCC is recognizing how embedded advertising, or subtle ways of incorporating commercial messages in programming, has become big business and the FCC is re-evaluating its rules regarding sponsorship identification and children’s advertising rules.

A recent Nielson report said the first half of 2008 saw a 12 increase across of broadcast programming with embedded advertising, according to the commercial-free children’s group.

From another perspective, $17 billion is spent annually on marketing to children, the group said in its comments last month to the FCC.

Levin hears from worried parents about how pop culture and the bombardment of product advertising are making their young daughters focused on their appearance and being sexy, starting with girls as young as 5, and how that sets them up to believe it is fine for boys to see them as objects.

In her new book, she offers how the sexualization of young girls disrupts their ability to develop meaningful relationships with peers, disrupts their ability to be empathetic to others and from developing normal sexual relationships later in life.

“The biggest issue is it is undermining kids’ abilities to have caring and connected relationships,” Levin said.

She suggests parents try to find a balance with the pop culture that fill their children’s lives and begin with a base understanding that they cannot fight it all the time.

“They can’t make it perfect but they can make it better,” she said. “Know what is going on. They need to stay connected to their kids and watch television with their kids. Have conversations.”

Parents need to let their kids know they can come to them as a source of information instead of feeling the only feedback they will receive is being yelled at, she said.

Exposure to television and video games needs to be negotiated because the more that kids watch, the more they need it, she said.

“They can’t play anymore,” Levin said, adding that teachers say children don’t know how to find interesting things to do on their own and can’t identify problems and find ways to resolve them.

Children’s lives can be seen as contained in two compartments, one being pop culture and the other the family/societal compartment, she said.

“Right now the pop culture is getting bigger and bigger and working very hard to crowd out the family/societal box,” she said.

“The boxes are pretty disconnected. We need to make the pop culture box as small as we can, but know it is going to be there, and have the family/societal box larger and connect them.”

One of the panelists Saturday is Erin Harrel, chairwoman of the baccalaureate in education programs at Edison State College and mother of three young children. She is reading Levin’s book and is finding it insightful.

Parents are constantly giving in to children today instead of standing firm and that’s led to children accustomed to instant gratification and the early sexualization is part of that trend, she said.

Before she began reading Levin’s book, she said, she found herself and other parents focused on sheltering their children from the monster consumerism and now sees the focus needs to switch on open communication with children, she said.

She hopes people attending the symposium and the panel discussion will leave the conference with more insight and understanding of mass marketing and the impact early sexuality is having on young lives.

“I hope educators and parents alike talk and come up with ways to cope and how do we, as parents, we need to make good choices,” she said. “There is no universal code.”





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