The end of innocence: The cost of sexualizing kids

Published: Sunday, Sept. 18 2011 12:34 a.m. MDT

At a "very young age, sexuality becomes a component of their self-concept. That's what they see. They discover relationships with members of the opposite sex at younger ages. Music has content that pushes the envelope. With a combination of a lot of factors, children at 10 or 11 now think the way someone two generations ago reached at 19 or so."

Standing in the same Salt Lake area mall next to her granddaughter, Sandy Sadler says she believes kids are growing up much faster, something she blames in partly on the Internet and ready access to images and information, whether a child's mature enough for it or not.

It's an issue both simple and complex. "Young women and girls lack the tools to validate themselves. They look outside themselves for validation," said a 2007 study by the Women's Foundation of California on pop culture impact on girls and young women. It affects, they said, "identity, behavior and opportunity."

That's the simple part. The complexity is all the ways sexualization hinders development, from failure to form healthy self image to the normalization of sexually degrading behavior, the report said, adding that "media teaches girls and young women the MOST important thing is how we look. Not living up to the unrealistic image impacts mental health."

Those with family support, safe environment, adult role models and activities that emphasize healthy body image are less likely to take part in destructive behaviors than peers who lack those assets.

But the so-sexy message is pervasive. Youth are bombarded with sexuality and violence at even younger ages, when they are not prepared to handle it, said Sherrie Uczekaj, a mom who was shopping with a group of kids at the mall.

That sentiment is echoed by Evert, the California-based teen motivational speaker, who says it's easy to find examples of sexually degrading behavior, but there's not enough talk about healthy sexual behavior.

"As a society, we know more about women who look good than we know about women who do good," wrote Audrey Brashich in "All Made Up." "The most celebrated women today are famous primarily for being thin and pretty, while women who are actually changing the world remain comparatively invisible."

When researchers at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California analyzed 100 top-grossing films of 2008 for a study that came out this April, they found teen girls were more apt to wear sexy, provocative clothing (40 percent) in movies than older females. They were also as likely to appear partially naked as older females (30 percent). Lead researcher Stacy Smith said "the data speaks to an overemphasis on beauty, thinness and sexualization of women at younger and younger ages."

The APA spots examples across all media types, from video games and the Web to music videos, magazine ads and even children's toys. Look at Bratz dolls, APA says, marketed for girls 7 to 10, dressed in minis and fishnet stockings, tight jeans and skimpy tops, as examples of dolls that depict "sexy". MGA, the maker of Bratz, declined comment.

There's a progression, says Diane Levin, co-author of "So Sexy So Soon". Little girls love baby dolls, then Barbie dolls, then Hannah Montana. Who can forget Miley Cyrus, who played Hannah, pole dancing at the Teen Choice Awards or posing semi-nude for Vanity Fair?

It's not just the quantity of depicted sex, either, they write. "Sex in commercial culture has far more to do with trivializing and objectifying sex than with promoting it, more to do with consuming than with connecting. The problem is not that sex as portrayed in the media is sinful, but that it is synthetic and cynical. The exploitation of our children's sexuality is in many ways designed to promote consumerism, not just in childhood but throughout their lives."

Identical twins Lexie and Lindsay Kite, doctoral candidates at the University of Utah, have studied sexualization for years. Lexie notes sexualization of women and little girls is both "extreme" and "normalized" in media. Her examples include Vogue covers featuring small girls made up and posed like grown women, thongs and push-up padded bras for children as young as 6, Walmart's line of 70 make-up products for girls 6 to 12. It's happening, she says, to make a profit.

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