Sexualizing kids: No child left behind — and fighting back

Parents, organizations decide to fight back

Published: Sunday, Sept. 18 2011 9:00 p.m. MDT

A 2009 report of 1,223 children ages 8 to 12 by Youth Trends, a marketing company based in Ramsey, N.J., found that 85 percent of respondents agreed that "my family is the most important part of my life" and 70 percent said "I consider my mom and/or dad to be one of my best friends," according to an article in USA TODAY.

Whose fault is it?

Levin traces the introduction of the "sexualized childhood" to the mid-1980s deregulation of TV ads for children by the Federal Communications Commission, which allowed development of toys directly related to programming.

"Ever since then, there has been a steady escalation of gender stereotypes," Levin says, with boys' toys more violent and girls' toys more sexualized. "What parents are saying okay to today was considered extreme five years ago."

She says it has gotten harder for boys and girls to play together and get along. Marketers push strong, bulky action figures, swords and guns for boys, while girls have more Barbie dolls and princess gear to choose from than ever before. Even My Little Pony has become highly stylized, with heavy makeup and high heels. Girls are judging their bodies by age 3 and 4 and talking about diets by 5, Levin says, adding that boys make fun of other boys who ask for help, calling them "sissies" as they are told by the media that boys need to be macho and violent.

Bullying has grown as young kids feel everyone needs to act and look a certain way — the way TV stars and music artists do, she notes. She sees other problems, like diminished imagination as kids just imitate what they see on TV. It's harder to act independently and come up with your own ideas when you're following someone else's programming.

"More and more parents are concerned and trying to do things, but it's totally unfair for suppliers to make it harder and harder for parents to do their jobs. Even the best parent in the world cannot compete with the onslaught," she says.

Levin would like more regulations of TV shows and advertising geared toward children. "The government has a long history of protecting children," she says. "Until the last 15 to 20 years, there has not been that kind of debate. One has to ask, 'When there is so much evidence on the harm that is caused by what is going on, growing by leaps and bounds, isn't it the government's job to help create a safe environment in which parents can raise their kids?' "

She believes corporations drive the problem, pursuing profit without thinking about the consequences their products have on children.

An employee for a popular toy manufacturer, who did not want to be quoted, told the Deseret News that "sales speak for themselves" when asked whether a particular toy was too sexy for young girls, adding that the company's large profits were proof that "good parents are buying them" for children. Requests for comments from the manufacturers of Barbie dolls were not returned. And the maker of Bratz dolls wrote back in an email: "We are not interested in participating in this story."

"What's going on here in 21st Century America is a war of values," wrote Annie Fox, a Cornell graduate who has written several books on teens. "On one side, parents doing their best to raise healthy young adults. And what are we up against? The marketing might of multi-billion dollar corporations. You probably don't need anyone to tell you who's winning."

Fighting back

Last fall, spurred by the report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, a coalition of girls and women activists like Geena Davis (who created her own institute on gender and the media), male allies, educators and institutes like the universities of Michigan and Colorado, researchers, media experts, and policymakers launched the Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance Knowledge (SPARK) Summit. Sparksummit.com features an article about a 10-year-old model posing in lingerie for French Vogue. The article's author, Maya Brown, says you can't dismiss the sexualized child as just "the parent's fault."

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