Chapter 1 - Introduction
Terms of reference
In 2006, the Australia Institute published two discussion papers on the
issue of the sexualisation of children in the contemporary media: Corporate
paedophilia: sexualisation of children in the media
and Letting children be children: stopping the sexualisation of children
The two papers prompted considerable public debate amongst parents, media and
retail industry stakeholders, academics and interested parties more generally,
indicating a high level of public interest in the issue.
On 15 August 2007, the Senate passed an Australian Democrats motion
noting the harmful effects of sexualisation of children in the media and
calling on the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to
specifically comment on the issue in its then current review of the Commercial
Television Industry Code of Practice and the Commercial Radio Code of Practice.
ACMA was also called on to make recommendations on the effectiveness of
different approaches and strategies to reduce and/or prevent sexualisation of
children in the media.
On 12 March 2008, the Senate referred the following matter to the Senate
Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts (the committee) for
inquiry and report by 23 June 2008:
The sexualisation of children in the contemporary media
environment, including radio and television, children's magazines, other print
and advertising material and the Internet.
On 19 June 2008, the committee sought and received an extension of time
for the tabling of the report until 25 June 2008.
In undertaking the inquiry the committee was required to:
examine the sources and beneficiaries of premature sexualisation
of children in the media;
review the evidence on the short- and long-term effects of viewing
or buying sexualising and objectifying images and products and their influence
on cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, attitudes and
examine strategies to prevent and/or reduce the sexualisation of
children in the media and the effectiveness of different approaches in
ameliorating its effects, including the role of school-based sexuality and
reproductive health education and change in media and advertising regulation
such as the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice and the Commercial
Radio Codes of Practice.
In a ministerial statement on the motion to refer the matter, the Minister
for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator the Hon. Stephen
Conroy, stated that ACMA's statutory functions were not 'broad enough for it
to address the full breadth of the issue of sexualisation of children'.
The minister indicated that the government, despite some concerns about the
inquiry's terms of reference, supported the referral of the matter to the committee.
The committee's approach
The committee's terms of reference require it to consider the three
issues set out above. However, before examining those issues, it is necessary
to define some of the terms being used and the parameters of this report.
The committee accepts that sexualisation, as defined below at paragraphs
1.25 and 1.26, has become much more visible in our society in recent decades.
Sexualised images and actions are more openly discussed and portrayed in the
media and used explicitly as a marketing device.
There are, of course, positives to more open and frank consideration of
sexual matters. Society is, generally, much less hypocritical about the subject.
Young people are much more likely to receive proper education on sex and
relationships and there are strong correlations between such education and a
declining incidence of unwanted pregnancy, abortion and the incidence of
sexually transmitted diseases among young people.
At the same time there are serious concerns in the community. Material
directed at children, whether it be advertising or products designed
specifically for them or unsolicited material, increasingly presents them with
a limited range of stereotyped images, particularly of girls, and promotes
sexualised images, attitudes and concepts which may be inappropriate to younger
age groups. There is emerging evidence that this licence is having negative
impacts on child development.
Ms Amanda Gordon, President, Australian Psychological Society, told the
Developmental psychologists have done a lot of research in this
area and one of the problems is that many children can understand at a
cognitive level, but it is very confusing at an emotional level because they
are not yet ready to be sexual, to have those sexual messages...It can be both
confronting and confusing, and it is part of that really subtle sexualisation
that we are talking about. It confuses them in terms of: what are they?
Ms Gordon also identified specific clinical problems she sees
in her practice as flowing from this increasing sexualisation.
The committee considers that the inappropriate sexualisation of children
in Australia is of increasing concern. While noting the complexity of defining
clear boundaries around this issue, the committee believes that preventing the
premature sexualisation of children is a significant cultural challenge. This
is a community responsibility which demands action by society. In particular,
the onus is on broadcasters, publishers, advertisers, retailers and
manufacturers to take account of these community concerns.
Noting this heightened concern, the committee believes that this issue
should be followed up and therefore recommends that the steps taken to address
it by industry bodies and others should be further considered by the Senate in
18 months time.
In considering research into this subject the committee acknowledges
that very limited work has been done on sexualisation of younger children.
Thus it is difficult to relate particular causes and effects—that a particular
behaviour can be linked causally to certain products or images.
For example, the evidence from practitioners such as Ms Gordon does show
that some young people, particularly girls, have difficulties with their body
image and this may lead in extreme cases to clinical problems such as eating
disorders. However, what cannot be said with any certainty is what are the
significant influences in causing these problems. A child may internalise
parental anxieties or dietary habits long before any 'sexualising' influence
from the media has an impact.
The committee believes that the precautionary principle suggests that,
as a society, Australia should take these developments extremely seriously and
where possible seek to reverse some of the trends. At the very least young
people and their parents must be given the knowledge, skills and support
necessary to 'read' the media critically.
Throughout this report the committee has made a number of
recommendations and suggestions whose object is to assist parents in managing
the influences to which their children are exposed, to assist children in
dealing with these influences. It is also the primary responsibility of parents
to make decisions about what their children see, hear, read or purchase. These
parental decisions can have a significant impact on the market for sexualising
products and services.
The committee believes that the producers of this material—whether
broadcasters, publishers, advertisers, retailers or manufacturers—must give
serious consideration to the quality of the products that they put before
children and the potential for harm that they may embody. Much of the media is
subject to self-regulatory or co-regulatory regimes to meet standards either
required by law or developed in codes of practice. It is important that these
regimes prove themselves to be responsive to legitimate community concerns and
developing research in the area of child development.
The committee believes that this is the appropriate position to take at
this stage. The committee notes that some in the community would like to see
more intrusive regulation of these products and services. Before proposing a
more regulatory approach, the committee believes that the onus is now on
broadcasters, publishers, advertisers, retailers and manufacturers to address
It is important to note that, while the committee has received many
expressions of concern about the issue of sexualisation—and these have been
given due weight in its deliberations—as an expression of 'community standards',
these have to be balanced against the decisions of adults to buy products for
their children or to watch particular television programs.
The underlying principles in considering these issues are contained in
the National Classification Code, and are echoed in various broadcasting and advertising
standards and codes. These principles are:
- adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want;
- minors should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them;
- everyone should be protected from exposure to unsolicited material that
they find offensive...
The tension between freedom and protection inherent in these three
principles is obvious. In Australia we seek to reconcile them through three processes:
- the creation of classification regimes, codes of practice and
standards with regard to broadcasting, advertising and publications which, in
the context of community standards, set out what it is acceptable to publish in
the various media;
- on the basis of these classification systems, to provide ratings
for television programs, films, some advertising and publications—the familiar
G, PG , M, et cetera—as a guide to the public as to the content of the material
and its suitability for various age groups. These ratings are supplemented by consumer
advice which gives more detailed descriptions of the content; and
- the use of time zones in broadcast media to restrict access by
children to programs designed for adults.
The report examines how effective the regulatory mechanisms which seek
to manage these issues are and considers where, if necessary, reform is needed.
Each of the classification systems relies on regular sampling and assessment of
community standards as an indicator of how the codes should be applied. Broad
conformity with community standards is also an indicator of how successfully
the regulators are doing their jobs. It is clear from many submissions that
there is, within the community, some confusion as to the purpose and meaning of
the codes of practice.
A second important mechanism for testing the integrity of the various
systems is the complaints procedure. Each of the regulatory bodies has created
a complaints procedure which enables members of the public to lodge complaints
with regard to breaches of the codes. The volume and substance of complaints
are valuable indicators of the extent to which the codes do reflect community
standards. Thus it is of concern that the complaints procedures do seem to be
unnecessarily confusing and anything but user friendly. The efficacy of the
various complaints procedures is dealt with at length throughout the report.
Various definitions of sexualisation have been put forward. That offered
by the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of
Girls is very broad and has been quoted in a number of submissions:
- a person's value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or
behaviour, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
- a person is held to physical standard that equates physical
attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
- a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for
others' sexual use, rather than a person with the capacity for independent
action and decision making; and/or
- sexuality is inappropriately imposed on a person.
All four conditions
need not be present; any one is an indication of sexualisation.
Ms Gordon in evidence to the committee noted two important elements of
- sexuality [that] is inappropriately and prematurely imposed on a
person such as a child; and
- sexualisation where 'a person's only ascribed value would be
their sexuality, their physical sex appeal'.
It is clear from these definitions that many of the matters raised in
submissions fall into the category of 'sexualisation'. However there are
important distinctions to be drawn between, for example, children becoming
aware of 'sex' as an idea from billboard advertising for men's health
treatments and the explicit and deliberate sexualisation of young girls through
advertising, products and attitudes which seek to develop a sexual identity of
a kind that is wholly inappropriate to their stage of development or is
narrowly focused on their physical sex appeal.
Thus the committee has viewed sexualisation as a continuum from the
explicit targeting of children with images, attitudes and content that
inappropriately and prematurely seek to impose a sexual identity on a child,
through the presentation of one-dimensional and stereotypical images of
children and young people, predominantly girls, in content, products and
advertising directed at them, to what might be described as the 'background
noise' of society at large where products, advertising and other materials made
for and directed at adults are readily accessed by children and reinforce the
sexualising messages they are receiving.
In considering these terms of reference the committee has sought to rely
on the evidence put before it. The committee does not set itself up to be the
arbiter of public taste with regard to particular advertisements, programs,
products or styles. The committee has tried to identify real problems—does evidence
exist that presentation of pre-teen children in adult styles and poses is
damaging to children; are magazines aimed at children pushing inappropriately
sexualising agendas; is exposure to television programming designed for adults
harmful to child development—and to address the regulatory policies put in
place to manage the media.
It is important throughout this discussion to separate real harm from
differences in public taste. This debate was initiated by advertising in a
catalogue for a major retail outlet. A brief perusal of some of the adverts in
question would quickly demonstrate that what one person considers inappropriate
sexualisation may be to another merely pretty, smart, grown-up or 'cute'. There
may be a convergence of views at the extremes but along the continuum of attitudes
in between there is a wide range of views as to what is and is not
Similarly, there is a range of views with regard to when it is
appropriate to start talking to children about sexual matters. Many parents,
judging from the submissions received by the committee, clearly feel pressured
by external influences into dealing with their children's questions on sexual
matters at a much earlier age than they consider appropriate. Others are more
ready to accept society as it is and deal with such questions as they arise.
Clearly many of the styles, activities and products which are of concern
to some of those who have made submissions to the committee are within the
control of parents or other adults. Inappropriately sexualising clothes,
magazines which discuss sexual issues frankly or even what television programs
younger children watch are all firmly in the realm of parental decision making.
Thus the element of parental responsibility and choice in all these
matters must be borne in mind.
At the same time, the committee is aware of the realities of family
life. Parents cannot supervise all that their children see, hear or read.
Television or radio is on when parents are not around, magazines circulate
beyond the purchaser and target age group and unsolicited material such as
billboard advertising cannot be avoided; there is a general 'background noise'
of sexualising material in our society.
It is both unreasonable and unjust to put all the responsibility on
parents or other adults to control children's access to the media. There is a
role for government in supporting and assisting parents and other adults in
managing young peoples' access to the media.
This brings the committee to the availability of research on actual harm
done to cohorts of children in particular age groups. There is research with
regard to older age groups and on topics such as the influence of the media on
violent behaviour. Many witnesses quoted the American Psychological Association
report referred to above at paragraph 1.25 but it should be noted that that
report relies heavily on research conducted on older age groups and
extrapolates its findings to younger children:
Much of the research reviewed in this report concerns the
sexualization of women...rather than girls. One reason for this is the paucity of
research specifically on the sexualization of girls—research that is urgently
The report goes on to note that the same research is nonetheless useful
in that the attitudes found in women reflect 'a lifetime of exposure to
comparable images and messages'.
While that may be valid in a general sense, it does not help in distinguishing
the sources of influence or causal relationships.
There is very little research relevant to younger children and, with
regard to the specific issue of inappropriate or premature sexualisation, the
situation is much the same. The committee has not been directed to any
longitudinal studies which seek to isolate particular influences and follow a
cohort over an extended period to measure the impact of those influences. It is
particularly to be regretted that there is no research which looks at the
long-term outcomes of the majority of young people who are faced with these
challenges and pressures, deal with them responsibly, and go on to become good
citizens and lead fulfilled lives.
Many of the submissions to the committee relied on anecdotal evidence
derived from individual experience and assume that, for example, because an
adult is angered, offended or embarrassed by a billboard advertising a lap
dancing club or 'male sexual dysfunction services', then the child interprets
the material in the same way and is harmed by it.
In discussing the state of research in Australia, Professor Catharine Lumby,
Director, Journalism and Media Research Centre, University of New South Wales,
Concern about actual sexual representation of children in
popular media and actual evidence that children are being presented in an adult
sexual light is...such an important and charged claim that genuine empirical and
methodologically sound research needs to be done.
Ms Gordon had a different emphasis. While acknowledging the limited
amount of research on this topic, Ms Gordon, citing the evidence of her own
practice with regard to the incidence of depression and eating disorders, took
the view that:
...sometimes we have to be preventative...How can it do any harm to
reduce the level of sexualisation of kids when we know the dangers inherent in
sexualisation ... rather than waiting till we have the proof.
A particular problem is the multiplicity of influences on children, the
weight to be given to them and the causal relationships involved. It is
extremely difficult to disentangle the specific roles played by family, school,
friends, society at large and the media in forming attitudes. This has
significant implications for public policy. In the absence of clear causal
relationships between particular media and identifiable psychological and/or
physical problems, regulatory interference is a very blunt instrument. This is
discussed further in Chapters 4 and 5.
Some submissions also dwelt on the importance of education in equipping
children to deal with the media influences to which they are exposed and, more
particularly, the sexualising material presented to them. It is also true that
parents may simply not be equipped to provide the kind of advice and support their
children need. Ms Gordon put it to the committee that:
It would be far healthier if parents sat with their children
watching a movie, instead of banning the movie and the children watching it
secretly...Parents who have a diet of soap operas and who are not critically
evaluating what they are seeing on television are not going to be able to help
their children in their discussion and in their growth.
Part of the terms of reference requires the committee to consider the
'sources and beneficiaries of premature sexualisation'. The 'tween' market has
been identified as a growth area for the sale of products and services, and has
been promoted and developed for decades by manufacturers, retailers,
broadcasters and advertisers. The committee received no evidence to suggest
that the production and marketing of products aimed specifically at children
and young people was driven by anything other than commercial imperatives.
If children can be encouraged to identify with particular products or
brands then that has both immediate and long-term commercial benefits to the
owners and marketers of those products or brands. If a girls magazine develops
a certain style and cultivates tastes that the reader carries into adult life
with the result that she moves to the publisher's range of magazines targeted
at adults then that is no different from the business practices in other
sectors where marketing to develop brand and product loyalty is an accepted
Because the 'tween' market consists of the most vulnerable in our
society the regulatory responsibility of government to protect that group is
concomitantly greater. Thus this report concentrates on the effectiveness of
the various bodies that have responsibility for regulating broadcasting,
publishing and advertising. Perhaps unfortunately there is no body responsible
for imposing 'community standards' on the manufacturers of products such as
padded bras for pre-pubescent girls. That is a matter for the good sense and
judgement of the producers and of parents.
It is important to clarify from the outset some of the terms used in
this report. There is a wide range of usages even on the matter of who is a
'child'. Various regulatory sources use upper age limits of 18, 16 and 15.
Submissions and other sources talk of mid-teens and post-puberty, and properly
distinguish those age groups from younger children and acknowledge different
stages of development among younger children as well. Others talk of stages of
development which do not conform to any precise age. Many submissions
generalise across the whole period of childhood from pre-school to adolescence.
The committee has tried to avoid generalisation and make clear to what
age group it is referring where that is relevant to an issue under discussion.
For example, the whole question of inappropriate or premature sexualisation has
quite different meanings for young people in their mid-teens exploring their
own emerging sexuality and younger children of primary school age being
introduced to sex-related roles or attitudes wholly irrelevant to their stage
of physical or emotional development.
A related question is: who are we concerned about? Children who appear
as models in advertising must do so with parental consent and are subject to a
range of employment conditions. There is no evidence indicating that they
suffer harm. Thus the report assumes that it is children generally in the
defined age groups that are the target for our concern.
This report is not about paedophilia—corporate or otherwise. Paedophilia
is variously described as a mental disorder and a crime, in the latter case
involving the sexual abuse of children or direct involvement in that abuse by
making, distributing or collecting images of abuse. Paedophilia refers to
sexual feelings and sexual acts involving young children who have not yet
The shock value of a term like 'corporate paedophilia' may help to
stimulate debate on the general question of the targeting of children as
consumers, of which sexualisation is a particularly damaging subset, but it
also distorts that debate. Targeting children through advertising, creation of
the 'tween' market and the presentation of inappropriately sexualised images of
children as part of these processes may be reprehensible and potentially damaging
but it is not comparable to the criminal, physical, sexual assault of children.
It is important to note that there is no evidence that the presentation
of children in styles of clothing or poses that are inappropriate to their age,
that association with particular products or that an interest in so-called
'celebrity culture' makes either the children who appear in such material or
the children who have access to that material more vulnerable to sexual abuse
Thus the committee believes that, as a community, we should avoid any
moves towards greater restrictions on what may be published in the media solely
on that ground. As Professor Alan McKee, Queensland University of Technology, pointed
out to the committee:
These criminals will find any excuse to justify their behaviour.
So it is a little bit of a furphy to say that we have to stop these things
because it will provide justification to paedophiles. Anything, even The
Sound of Music, provides justification to paedophiles. We cannot run our
entire media on that basis.
On 26 March 2008, in accordance with usual practice, the committee
advertised the inquiry in the Australian, calling for submissions by 18 April 2008; the inquiry was re-advertised on 1 April 2008. A number of organisations
and individuals were contacted directly and invited to make submissions. The
committee received 167 submissions, which are listed in Appendix 1.
The committee also received approximately 900 standard letters, which
were sent via a website for Kids Free 2B Kids (KF2BK).
A number of standard-letter submitters also added additional comments to their
letters. The letters and additional comments were considered in the course of the
committee's deliberations on the subject of the inquiry; however, for
administrative convenience, all standard letters were treated as
correspondence. The committee acknowledges that the large number of these
submissions reflects the high level of community interest in the issue of
sexualisation of children.
A number of submissions were judged to contain potentially adverse
comments. Organisations and individuals were advised of adverse comments and
offered the opportunity to respond. Responses have been posted on the
For privacy reasons, a number of submissions were published with the
author's name withheld.
The committee held two hearings; in Melbourne on 29 April 2008 and in Sydney on 30 April 2008. Witnesses who appeared before the committee at these
hearings are listed at Appendix 2.
The committee thanks all those who participated in the inquiry.
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