Home | Health+Development | Media sexualisation of children warps 6-year-old minds, advocate says

Media sexualisation of children warps 6-year-old minds, advocate says

New research by Curtin University has shown that girls as young as 6 feel the effects of child sexualisation in media.

The researchers, led by Dr Michelle Jongenelis from Curtin’s School of Psychology and Speech Pathology, surveyed Australian girls aged 6 to 11. The girls were shown sexualised and non-sexualised images of other girls their own age, and were asked to describe them.

“The majority of participants described the sexualised girl as trying to look ‘cool’, ‘stylish’, and ‘attractive’,” Jongenelis reported. “They also associated external features such as clothing and make-up with personality traits such as ‘mean’, ‘bossy’, and ‘fake’.”

The study’s results, published in the journal Body Image, come as no surprise to Caitlin Roper, campaigns manager at Collective Shout – a collective that advocates against female objectification and sexualisation.

Accused of sexualising children: Vogue.

Photo: Vogue

She described child sexualisation by the media as a “public health crisis” and advised that, despite numerous state government inquiries into it since 2008, it remains unresolved.

Jongenelis listed teen magazines, prime-time television programs, advertising, music videos and lyrics, dolls and clothes as sexualisation targets.

Collective Shout habitually names and shames the companies behind such sights and sounds. Recent targets include McDonald’s, for the music videos it shows on in-store screens, and General Pants Co., for what Collective Shout deemed “a wide range of sexually objectifying in-store advertising”.

These examples aren’t confined to children. Collective Shout co-founder Melinda Tankard Reist called out dancewear company Frilledneck Fashion on her own website, for its Instagram posts of pre-teens.

Why it matters

According to Jongenelis, body shame, eating disorders and depression are among sexualisation’s immediate impacts.

Roper added that impaired cognitive performance is also one of the negative upshots, as girls pay more attention to their physical appearance to the detriment of other matters, such as schoolwork.

What’s more, sexualisation has profound effects on how outsiders view its victims.

“Previous research found sexualised women and girls are less likely to be perceived as strong, intelligent, moral, capable and qualified for high status jobs,” Jongenelis informed.

Additionally, the Australian Psychological Society had this to say in its submission to a recent NSW Parliamentary inquiry into the issue:

“Viewing highly sexualised images of women … has … concerning general societal effects, like an increase in sexism, increased rates of sexual harassment and sexual violence, and negative impacts on how men regard women.”

Fight it from the outside

The Australian advertising industry is self-regulated, and this, Roper said, is a problem. “They are failing to protect children,” she said. She further alleged that when people report companies to the regulator, the Australian Media Authority, their complaints tend to be dismissed. She illustrated this point by way of example.

“There was an ad for coffee beans,” Roper explained. “A women was clad in a BDSM-looking outfit and was pouring milk over herself in a really sexualised way. The [Australian Media] Authority dismissed a complaint against it on the basis that milk is a wholesome product and the ad could be interpreted as a woman bathing in milk.”

So, for Collective Shout, independent regulation is essential.

In addition to this, the group supports Curtin’s Jongenelis’s calls for more in-depth media literacy for girls, starting at a younger age.

“Media literacy programs that help young girls become critically aware of sexualising content are important,” Jongenelis urged. “Our results indicate, however, that the implementation of these programs in adolescence may be too late – we need to start educating even younger girls, before their attitudes and beliefs become ingrained and resistant to change.”

Providing media literacy training isn’t just educators’ task. Parents can assist by analysing harmful media messages with their kids.

“You can prompt questions while watching TV,” Roper suggested. “For instance, when watching Monster High, ask the children in your care if they think the girls are smart or dumb.”

With children being bombarded with sexualised imagery “from all angles”, Roper asserted that media literacy is “just one piece of the puzzle”. The other fragments might require legislative intervention.

To this end, the NSW Government will respond to the Sexualisation of Children and Young People report, which stemmed from the government’s inquiry, by May 17, 2017.

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