Monday, May 10, 2010


Near the end of April which was child abuse prevention month I attended a public workshop titled Sexploitation: Media's impact on your child and what you can do about it by Dr. Marcie Billings from Mayo Clinic's Child and Family Advocacy Program.

She spoke about research but just as importantly spoke from the perspective of a pediatrician who has dealt with the impact of the media on her patients.

Children are inundated by the media before they have the experience and knowledge to make critical assessments of what messages are being reinforced by the media. Children may not realize that what they learn from the media is not an accurate representation of the real world. Many of the media messages do nothing to support healthy decision making.

In a handout from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, by the age of 3 months 40% of infants are watching screen media regularly however the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under the age of 2.

Media often promotes physical standards to children which they can't possibly reach because the image is an impossible one. If children make judgments about their own bodies using distorted body images as the standard for what they should look like that can contribute to a toxic obsession with weight and beauty. Hypersexualized media also distorts the reality of sexual behaviors and can impact children's sexual actions.

Normalization is the process through which ideas or behavior go from clearly problematic to accepted part of societal culture. For those who don't like the sexualization of children this results in an attitude of futility and "this is just the way it is." But Dr. Billings stressed that adults do have the power to push back against these norms and they can help their children develop this power.

The goal is to assure childhood free from sexualization, but right now hyper-sexualization is pervasive. Adults and children need to develop media literacy so they think critically about the media they are exposed to and take an active role in the consumption of media. Media can and must be held accountable for what is presented and what is not presented.

Dr. Billings encouraged parents to not only monitor and control their children's media usage but to use problematic content as an opportunity to help their children develop their thinking skills. This needs to go beyond rejecting certain content and telling a child, "that's bad." Parents should encourage their children to talk to them about their perspective and then parents need to listen. Adults can then help children develop clear boundaries so those children can better face general or specific pressure which pushes them toward sexualization or objectification.

The bottom line is that we need to let children be children and to view sexuality as a developmental milestone not as something which is imposed on children by the media or by society.


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posted by Marcella Chester @ 11:25 AM   6 comments links to this post


At May 10, 2010 12:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is talked about all the time by people in the child protection field. Has been for years. And yet I have never seen a systemic effort to address it.
It's not just children, though they are the most subject to influence. All of us are affected by unhealthy images/ideals, especially when we are not aware or trained to screen them out or at least put them in context.
Good article.

At May 10, 2010 1:10 PM, Blogger JENNIFER DREW said...

In fact it is the deliberate sexualisation and dehumanisation of girls rather than 'children.' Yet still claims continue to be made that both girls and boys are 'sexualised.' APA published an in depth report on popular culture and media's deliberate sexualisation of girls, but as usual this report was briefly considered and then ignored by the very powerful male-dominant media and governments both in the US and UK.

The issue is about women's and girls' rights not to be reduced to mens and boys' sexual service stations.

At May 10, 2010 2:11 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

Jennifer, You are right that there are distinct differences based on gender. However, toxic sexualization impacts both boys and girls. The sexualization of boys supports a norm of sexual dominance which helps turn non-violent boys into sex offenders and which labels boys who respect sexual boundaries as gender failures.

At May 10, 2010 2:26 PM, Anonymous m Andrea said...

I suspect many parents have no idea how to implement the suggestions you mentioned, Marcella. Dr. Phil from Oprah gets a bad rap sometimes, but he does give people "scripts" which allows folks to get a much more detailed feel for whatever helpful social interaction he just discussed.

I know a fair bit about marketing propaganda, and some about the developmental capacity of little kids, but even I wouldn't know where to start a conversation like that. I suspect many young and harried parents would be even more clueless.

At May 10, 2010 3:26 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

m Andrea, I think suggestions about how parents can talk to children about sexploitation will come from people such as Dr. Billings and the groups which are being developed to address these issues.

A huge part of the how recommended by Dr. Billings is for parents to begin building a dialogue with their children so they can understand the sexualized pressures their child feels and have appropriate communication.

So often parents learn from their own parents to simply give orders about acceptable conduct. Or they reinforce sexploitation by condemning any child who has been sexualized.

At May 14, 2010 7:20 PM, Anonymous Social Worker said...

It's very difficult to help parents get to a place to hold those kinds of conversations. Often it means challenging their own perceptions and biases AND teaching them how to have non-shaming discussions that highlight their own values to their kids without diminishing other children in the process.
I face this regularly in my work.


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