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Too Much Flesh, Far Too Young


Kate Hannon

The Canberra Times
April 5, 2008



Most of us will remember the creepy images of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsay aping a glamorous beauty queen in one of those hideous children's pageants they have in America.

While not responsible for her tragic death, her parents' efforts to turn their little girl into a bonsai Marilyn Monroe attracted scorn and ridicule.

How could they steal their own daughter's innocence like that?

While most Australians would blanch at the prospect of doing the same to their child, there appears to be an undertow beckoning little girls and boys to join a world of mini-Britneys, Parisettes and little Lindsays mingled in with junior gangsta rappers. On any given Saturday morning, young children can view practically pornographic video clips on free-to-air TV, such as those of the Pussycat Dolls, pictured above, and questionable rap acts.

Even given that, gone are the days when radio, TV and magazines were the main sources of influence for children outside of the family.

The ready availability of pictures, video, audio and text, in real time and on portable devices such as mobile phones, without any adult supervision, has given marketers unfettered access.

Children can absorb the latest celebrity gossip, pop music videos, electronic games, fashion tips and where to get the latest gadget marketed to their age group.

All at an age, the Australian Psychological Society warns, well before they are able to emotionally and mentally process the messages.

The marketers and advertisers argue they did not create the pre-teen market and that they are simply catering to an existing need.

A growing number of parents are worried and want to know how they can shield their children from becoming consumer fodder for a mass market forever on the hunt for fresh unused minds.

In their landmark 2006 report, "Letting Children be Children: stopping the sexualisation of children in Australia" for the Australia Institute, Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze tapped into concerns at the creation of a pre-teen "market segment".

They found that with their baptism as consumers in their own right, the under-12s are increasingly at risk of premature sexualisation.

For example, Rush and La Nauze reported that 20 per cent of six-year-old girls and nearly half of 10- and 11-year-old girls each month read at least one popular girls' magazine.

They include Barbie Magazine, Total Girl and Disney Girl, which idolise the likes of Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson and Lindsay Lohan, women who are largely famous for being famous along with their partying, drug-taking and sexual exploits.

Like magazines for teenagers, they advertise clothes that ape those of their older sisters and mothers, make-up and even the need to have crushes on male celebrities.

Only last week there was a report in Britain of an internet doll game being played by children as young as nine where dolls could be booked in for breast implants and facelifts.

"While parents do their best to protect their children, many feel that they are losing the battle," Rush and La Nauze said.

Less than six months ago we heard of the Bratz brand of padded bras for 6- to 8-year-olds and the Jay Jay's "Little Losers" t-shirts with slogans like Mr Well Hung, Mr Pimp, Mr Drunk, Mr Asshole, Little Miss Bitch and Miss Floozy.

You can even buy a size 0 t-shirt for babies with the slogan "All daddy wanted was a blowjob".

There also was uproar in some media outlets late last year when pole-dancing an activity normally associated with strip and lap-dancing clubs was featured in an episode of the long-running TV soap Home and Away as a great new exercise for young girls.

While children might be being influenced at some level, it raises the question why a parent would buy a t-shirt like that for a child. But, more importantly, what sort of message does it send out to paedophiles?

This was the concern with the Lee jeans advertisements last year that used a young model who looked about 12 years old in a photo shoot with a Lolita-style theme.

Just who the message was aimed at was not clear.

After a debate on the sexualisation of children in the media on the ABC TV program Difference of Opinion last September, child psychologist Professor Louise Newman, who was a participant, received a phone call from a man who described himself as a paedophile who had sexual relationships with very young children.

"One of the things he found sexually arousing, which he collected, was all of the particular advertising material which had been of concern involving preschool and young children," Newman says.

"In the end, he said, 'Everyone must feel like this, it's not just a few of us; there must be a lot of people who view those as sexual images."'

Newman, who is now professor of perinatal and infant psychiatry at Newcastle University, says the pervasive messages about body image and fashion have also affected the attitudes of very young children.

"I've certainly seen children as young as four and just entering school who are expressing concerns about weight, that they're not pretty, that they're fat, and they're very influenced at the moment by things like Bratz dolls," Newman says.

"We've seen children who are having negative developmental consequences of that sort of exposure."

Associate Professor of Law at Flinders University in South Australia and vice president of Young Media Australia, Elizabeth Handsley, says children are bombarded with sexualised images often aimed directly at them.

"The growing problem is a tendency to present children, especially little girls, in advertising and other media vehicles dressed up like little dolly birds, wearing miniskirts and high boots, displayed in coquettish poses that could be seen as sexual," Handsley says.

"You can say it's all innocent fun and little girls always like dressing up like big girls and in the their mum's clothes; it's not really about that, it's not dressing up anymore."

Boys were also being targeted on clothing and attitude, using pop stars and music videos which have found an even younger audience.

Child psychologist Dr Joe Tucci, who is chief executive officer of the Australian Childhood Foundation, believes a market has been created where one previously did not exist, or in the past was accessed through parents.

"We've even now developed the 'tweenie' description to define that age group between childhood and adolescence," Tucci says.

They are a part of the general consumer culture where going to the shopping mall on a weekend with the family and buying stuff is now a leisure activity in its own right.

The marketers are also targeting the "pester power" of children with the knowledge that they have significant influence on their parents when planning major purchases like a TV, a car or a holiday.

"Kids are much more brand conscious than they ever have been," Tucci says.

"The sinister part of it is that we're creating a generation of young people that define themselves by what they have rather than by who they are or what they do.

"In the past, it was much more about what you did: you played footy, you were in Girl Guides or you were in dancing.

"Kids are still doing those sorts of things but inevitably it's the things that they have that engages them with other kids and tells them whether they're fitting in or not."

Concerns have reached such a pitch that the Australian Democrats last month successfully pushed for a Senate inquiry into the premature sexualisation of children in the media.

It will be taking public submissions until April 18 and inquiry committee member and Democrats leader Senator Lyn Allison, in her swan song in the Senate, says it will try to quantify the level of concern and danger to children.

"I'm certainly convinced there are many, many parents out there who are worried about this," Allison says.

It will look at what the industry is doing to curb messages that contribute to the sexualisation of children and has even attracted the attention of some US researchers who have offered to contribute.

A series of letters already received by the committee from members of the public detail the concerns of parents about their children's daily confrontation with sexual messages in advertising and media, forcing them to explain something the kids are too young to comprehend.

As one parent says, "A very false sense of what is normal is being projected out in the marketplace, placing undue pressure on young girls and women to behave and dress to conform to what is being portrayed as beautiful, successful and sexy."

Tucci says one reason why there is little public complaint about sexualised clothing for children is that they are now mainstream.

"You don't go into a lingerie shop to buy a pair of undies with the word 'sexy' written on them for a five-year-old but you might buy a pair at K-mart," Tucci says.

"It's been normalised, it's been translated into a common cultural item."

As a consequence of pushing children into adulthood at a faster rate when they are emotionally and physically not ready, he says, there are greater levels of stress.

"We're seeing things like anxiety go up, we're seeing increased problem sexual behaviour with children; this is kids who are engaging in quite severe problem sexual behaviour with other kids who haven't necessarily been sexually abused," Tucci says.

About 30 per cent of the children his service sees who have problem sexual behaviour do not have the usual background of trauma like sexual abuse.

"When you talk to them and you do some of the exercises you do, you realise they have a heightened sensitivity to sexual material, and I think that's because of its proliferation," he says.

But Handsley says children are not as unaware as the adults might think.

"Little girls aren't necessarily as innocent as they may seem and if they are buying or having stuff bought for them that has actively sexual words on it for example, it's not so much we're projecting sex on to that image," Handsley says.

"I think that children are savvy enough to know that this has something to do with sex; dressing up in what on an adult would be provocative clothing is a way of being grown up, of getting attention."

The link to sex is often because it has a connotation of a positive self-image.

"If they're doing that before they can even realise it has sexual connotations for the people around them, I think that's of concern too," Handsley says.

"There is a need for a lot more clarification and definition of the issues."

Newman says it is not possible for children as young as six to understand the implications of wearing a t-shirt with a slogan that says "porn star", for example.

"They can't fully understand the implications of adult sexual behaviour," Newman says.

"Children are obviously interested in sexual things but they should be getting that knowledge at a rate that's appropriate to their developmental stage."

There is a hope that the Senate inquiry, which is due to report on June 23, will air those concerns in a way which sparks constructive debate and give parents some cues on how to curb what many feel helpless to combat.

"To some extent it can put the advertisers on notice," Allison says.

Collin Segelov, of the Australian Association of National Advertisers, says they have reviewed their industry code, which is self-regulated, to prohibit material which sexualises children.

lison Abernethy, chief executive officer of the industry regulator, the Advertising Standards Bureau, says the addition of the clause will give the board much stronger grounds to stop ads that sexualise children.

As for the JonBenets of this world, Newman says we're unlikely to go down the same path here but it is clear there is increasing community concern about the vulnerability of children. "It's not unlike the debate about junk food advertising in children's hour [on TV] ...

"I think it's a debate about public health and child protection," Newman says.

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