For several years now, Australian academics have expressed concern about the premature sexualisation of children by manufacturers, advertisers and the internet. No-one took much notice until last week when Steve Biddulph, having covered every aspect of bringing up boys, published a book on the problems facing rearing girls and received considerable media publicity.
You may recall the fuss about Target selling mini-bras for 5 year olds, about the Calvin Klein and David Jones advertisement where a pre-schooler sat with a man with her legs wide apart... about the American attempt to introduce beauty contests for six year olds to Melbourne and the emotional debate about whether sexual photographs of young girls were art or pornography. Then there are T shirts for babies with sick sexual messages such as "All daddy really wanted was a blow job", said to be available from Amazon at a cost of $18. Presumably purchasers think this amusing.
Children are seeing explicit sex on TV and on their mobile phones. Actors hop into bed on the first date and you never hear contraception or safe sex being mentioned in soapies or movies. And while you can protect your children at home by monitoring their use of Facebook, the internet and TV use, there is nothing to stop them from seeing pornography on their friends' computers in their homes or their phones at school.
Too late for some children, child psychologists and early childhood academics are observing the inevitable: that childhood innocence as we knew it has disappeared. Children are bombarded with sexual social media, the importance of body image and the need for girls to appear sexy from a very early age.
Parents' concerns in England led to the Department of Education's six month inquiry which led to "Letting Children be Children - Report of an Independent Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood" which can be found on the internet. Parents expressed anxiety about the influence of music videos (visual and lyrics), children's sexy clothing, their access to pornography and media advertising that puts pressure on children to grow up prematurely and engage in sex without participating in caring relationships.
Researching in New Zealand with children of 12+ years, we found that both boys and girls were engaging in sex because their peer group expected it of them. They didn't enjoy it. Girls were afraid of sexually transmitted diseases, rape and being drugged and yet they exposed themselves to all three at weekends when they were partying. Boys complained that girls pressurised them to have sex and they never associated sexual intercourse with pregnancy.
Children in primary school are being bullied into providing oral sex, receiving SMS threats that if they don't oblige, unpleasant things will happen to them. Girls are being regarded as trophies, ‘sexting', ie taking photos of their bodies for boyfriends, some of whom share them with friends and even the world via the internet. And despite the efforts of feminists, nothing has really changed; while these boys are admired by their mates, the girls are viewed as slags and whores and some have suicided as a result of the backlash. In the meantime, eleven year old boys have been charged with rape, giving the excuse that they were addicted to pornography and the desire to do what the adults do. Young lives are being wrecked... and who is to blame?
Parenting has never been so complicated or so difficult, especially when children reach an age when peer approval is more important than pleasing you. We have a generation of parents who have stopped parenting to be their children's "best friends". It doesn't work! Children need limits, routines, guidance and a good example. They need parenting. It is useless allowing youngsters to do what they want then try to introduce rules when they reach puberty.
When children are young, help them to observe and understand how advertising succeeds in influencing young people. Place firm limits on social media such as Facebook because of the sexual content on sites. Take advice from Netalert, Netsafe and other government websites on how to help children to stay safe using the internet and email.
Teach both boys and girls to take good care of their bodies, emphasising that sex is best reserved for loving relationships and early pregnancy can ruin young people's lives.
Be aware that pornography is widely used by child sex offenders to tap into children's curiosity, desensitise them and normalise deviant behaviour and emphasise the need to get away and report anyone who shows them rude pictures.
If your children insist on sleepovers with friends, check with parents that they are actually there. Given their vulnerability, advise your children about what to do if someone behaves sexually inappropriately while on a sleepover or camp. Be open and honest and encourage open conversations and honesty because the time of giving vague hints about child protection has long gone.
Dr Freda Briggs AO is Emeritus Professor in Child Development at the University of South Australia and author of "Smart Parenting for Safer Kids". "Smart Parenting for Safer Kids", reviewed by SingleMum.com.au here, gives tips on keeping children safe in a wide range of situations from cyber space and sexual abuse to bullying. The book is available in all good bookstores and can be ordered by phone on 03 9681 7275 or online at JoJo Publishing
You can read more of Freda Briggs's Profile here.
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