Chapter 3 - Effects of premature sexualisation on child development
Term of reference (b) requires the committee to:
...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 beliefs...
The committee emphasises that its analysis of this issue is based on
recognition of the 'important distinction between premature sexualisation and
sexual socialisation—that is, the formation of a healthy sexual identity'.
Nature of the evidence received
Cumulative versus direct-impact
A number of experts made submissions or appeared at the hearings to give
evidence about the effects on children of exposure to sexualising and/or
objectifying images or products. Although some types of media were identified
as particularly problematic,
the majority of submissions effectively concerned the cumulative impact of all the
material and information to which children are exposed. SHine SA, for example, offered
a typical observation on the general process or effect of media sexualisation
TV, Internet, radio, music videos, music lyrics, movies,
magazines, sports media, video-games and advertising increasingly portray
sexualised images which promote narrow and unrealistic ‘standards’ of physical
beauty and sexual interest...Females are more often than males portrayed in a
sexual manner and objectified...Males are raised in a society that glorifies
sexually aggressive masculinity and considers as the norm the degradation of
Much of the evidence relevant to term of reference (b) thus did not
distinguish between advertising and content produced for/directed at children
and that which is produced for/directed at adults. Indeed, the majority was
concerned with the latter. Narrow or stereotypical portrayals of body type,
beauty and women were commonly identified as the major source of sexualisation
of children. The focus of the committee's consideration of the effects of
sexualisation was therefore on the cumulative effect of this indirect or
'background noise' of sexualising material, as opposed to children's advertising
or content to which they are more directly exposed. Dr Lauren Rosewarne, for
example, who appeared in a private capacity,
presented research which concluded that outdoor advertising in Australia tends
to present women 'in a very homogenous way as young, thin, white and idle';
and a report by the Women's Forum Australia (WFA) on the female image in
women's magazines found that there is a:
...continual depiction of women as hot, thin, sexy and primarily
The submissions and evidence from the Australian Psychological Society (APS)
explicitly relied on this broader conception or definition of sexualisation. Ms
Amanda Gordon, President of the APS, explained:
...sexualisation, to a psychologist, also means that a person’s
only ascribed value would be their sexuality, their physical sex appeal, to the
exclusion of all other characteristics.
When a person is held to a standard that equates physical
attractiveness with being sexy or when a person is sexually objectified rather
than being seen as a person with a capacity for independent action and decision
making and is made into a thing for others’ sexual use, it is those aspects of
sexualisation that equally concern the Australian Psychological Society...
Specific research, studies and
The committee encountered a lack of definitive evidence concerning the
media and the effect of premature sexualisation. Many submitters relied on a single
report of the American Psychological Association (APA), which concerns the
sexualisation of girls, on which to base their claims about the media and the harmful
effects of sexualisation on child health and development.
Despite the American focus of the APA report and the studies it surveys
and references, the committee found its findings to be generally relevant and
useful to the inquiry's terms of reference. Whilst narrow or stereotypical
representations of women are not limited to the media, and can be found in many
aspects of life, the report's findings may be cautiously applied to at least
conclude that some level or preponderance of sexual material in advertising and
media content has the potential to contribute to, and perhaps even cause, emotional
and physical damage to children. On the other hand, it is recognised that the
conclusions and recommendations able to be drawn from the report must be ultimately
constrained by its methodological limitations. As Dr Albury noted:
...the authors acknowledge themselves that most of the research
conducted on the question of whether there is a causal link between media
representation and changes in behaviour has been conducted on women of
university age and older...[The APA itself]...calls for more actual empirical
research to be conducted with girls and so on.
The committee also considered anecdotal claims that were mainly provided
in private submissions, but which also arose in evidence concerning professional
and expert experiences. These can be characterised as observational, intuitive
or perhaps common-sense claims about how certain material may affect children's
mental and physical health and sexuality.
It is difficult for such evidence alone to form the basis of
prescriptive or systemic changes to regulation of advertising and media.
However, these observations, perspectives and experiences have legitimately
informed the committee's deliberations and recommendations in later chapters on
improving regulation to afford parents greater control and thus choice over the
material to which their children are exposed.
Over a third of private submitters identified themselves as parents or
grandparents concerned that their children and grandchildren are being subject
to sexualisation by the media. A frequently expressed sentiment in private
submissions received from parents and others was concern over the loss of
childhood innocence due to premature sexualisation:
Childhood is a time of joy and innocence, and this should be an
absolute right for all our children. They become adults soon enough, and
childhood is a time to be cherished.
Submitters frequently equated 'innocence' with a form of right allowing
children to grow up free of adult concerns and to mature at their own pace:
[Young people]...have the right of innocence and should be allowed
to mature at their own rate and not forced upon [sic] by media outlets,
advertisers or designers.
Private submissions generally assumed that premature sexualisation of
children exposes children to the risk of 'psychological damage'
and emotional, developmental and physical or sexual harm.
A typical comment was:
You only need to look at the 13-23yrs age group now to see what
a damning effect the last 10 yrs of media's sexual influences have done. They
are sexually out of control and seem to have no boundaries...I'm dreading the
outcome in another 10 yrs.
At least one submission pointed to a lack of consensus on the harmful
effects of sexualisation of children, but suggested nevertheless that '[the
effects] are not likely to be positive'.
Objectification of women and individuals was raised as an issue of great
concern to many private submitters, who felt that the abundance of sexual
images and messages in the media encourages a view of women as sexual objects
to be valued primarily for their appearance and sexual availability or
willingness. Many writers, either implicitly or explicitly, drew a comparison
with, or connection between, contemporary media standards and pornography.
Low self esteem and problems with self image and emotional development
were widely thought to be the result of premature sexualisation.
Increasing rates of eating disorders in both girls and boys were regularly
cited as being due to the sexualisation of children, which was said to
encourage children to consider weight and body image more generally as
The decreasing age of children participating in sexual activity, as well
as promiscuity more generally, were often raised in private submissions.
In clinical or scientific terms, the committee observes that there is a
lack of evidence of the effect of early exposure to sexual themes and images on
children's development and that it is, consequently, not well understood.
Despite the relatively broad range of research cited or alluded to, there is no
definitive understanding of how child development is affected by early exposure
to sexual imagery and concepts, and particularly its influence and impact on
sexual development. There were no studies that specifically examined the sexualising
impact of the media on children put before the committee.
Professor Catharine Lumby, Director, Journalism and Media Research
Centre, University of New South Wales, and Dr Katherine Albury, Postdoctoral
Research Fellow, Journalism and Media Research Centre, University of New South
Wales, submitted that research is needed into the effects of children's
undoubtedly higher levels of exposure to media in all its forms:
It is true that children and teenagers are more likely to come
into contact with media material designed for adults, via the internet as well
as numerous popular media products. It is also true that there is a growing
volume of popular media material designed with children as well as teenagers in
mind. There is a real need for broad, evidence based research, which examines
how children and young people understand this material.
Dr Devora Lieberman, President, Sexual Health and Family Planning
Australia (SHFPA), agreed that more Australian research is needed.
Ms Gordon commented on the type of research needed in order to better inform
understanding of children:
In Australia we lack significant longitudinal studies about a
whole range of things that would help to inform us what is legitimate in the
way we look at children. Starting by understanding how a nine-year-old now is
different from a nine-year-old 20 years ago and finding out more about
nine-year-olds in 10 years time would be extremely useful in informing us about
educational policy et cetera.
Evidence considered by the committee makes it clear that children begin
developing a gender identity very early, that the totality of their social
environment has a strong effect in shaping their future attitudes and
behaviours, and that they learn social behaviour by observing adults and
engaging in extensive mimicry of adults and social situations. However, the
extent to which media images and messages influence children's behaviour has
not been established. What research has been done tends to indicate that
children are not 'empty vessels' who simply accept what they see portrayed in
the media, but are active consumers who examine and critique what they see
based on what they have learned so far.
Professor Lumby and Dr Albury pointed to:
...[a] growing body of international research suggesting that
young people make sense of the media in very different and diverse ways. Many
young people access existing media in ways that may assist the formation of
healthy sexual identities, including seeking factual information on sex and
relationships from sex advisers and problem pages in magazines...
Parental guidance and attitude appear to be major factors of influence
in the framework children use to interpret media. Professor Lumby and Dr Albury
Recent British research indicates that parents can ‘model’ or
reinforce particular responses to sexual material, and hence particular sexual
identities for their children. The media do not have an autonomous ability to
either sexually corrupt children or to sexually ‘liberate’ them.
In one UK study of children's attitudes and reactions to contemporary
media, the authors found that children were able to identify what was
appropriate for them to be viewing and interpreted media images and situations
in ways appropriate to their age:
Children are not the naive or incompetent consumers they are
frequently assumed to be. They use a range of critical skills and perspectives
when interpreting sexual content; and this develops both with age and with their
experience with the media...the children's response to sexual imagery in
advertising or music videos displayed a well-developed understanding of how
such images are constructed and manipulated.
The same study found that, beginning at a relatively early age, children
learn how to process and interpret media images from their parents; it also
found that children do not readily understand sexual connotations and
references. It concluded that the ability of the media to instil or create sexual
attitudes may be limited by the need for its messages to fit into a framework
of existing knowledge that is usually only gained gradually from a variety of
Some evidence to the inquiry appeared to support this view. For example, Ms Jennifer
Walsh, Education Officer, Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and
Society (ARCSHS), advised:
...we are...seeing with primary school children in relation to the
sexualisation of children...increasing pressure to present themselves in a sexual
way without the mature understanding that goes with that...[More] and more girls
[are] feeling that they have to present themselves in a sexually attractive
way, finding themselves in situations that they are not mature enough to handle
and failing to develop those other aspects of themselves that childhood should
allow them to develop normally.
Ms Gordon also commented on this issue:
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.
The UK study found that morality was also a major factor in the way
children interpret the media. When viewing material with sexual themes children
often exhibited concern for children younger than themselves; even very young
children dismissed such material as 'rude':
Children made judgements about sex, not in the abstract but in
the context of 'love and relationships'. They were very concerned about the
decency or propriety of sexual behaviour or sexual images, particularly in
public settings...[There] was very little evidence that the children were being
morally corrupted, or led towards a kind of amoral cynicism, by the media.
Indeed, they often appeared more 'moralistic' (and in some cases, more
'prudish') than many adults.
The committee notes that children's emotional and physical development
appears both complex and nuanced, based as it is on the totality of their
experience, the significant influence of parents and their own interpretation
of media and messages to which they are exposed. However, equally, the
committee observes that modern media comprises a significant proportion of children's
experience. So too, the media shapes and influences adult role models, and broadly
expresses and reflects social attitudes and values which are no doubt potentially
powerful factors within the totality of a child's experience of the world and
There is, clearly, a need for more research into these complex
interactions. However the conduct of research into the attitudes of, and
influences on, children, particularly young children does raise serious ethical
and practical issues. Any inquiry requiring the study of the influences on
children would, of necessity, require a high degree of cooperation from parents
and intrude into the details of family life, raising significant privacy
Also of concern is the problem, identified in evidence to the committee,
that such a study might itself be disturbing and contribute to the process of
sexualisation, particularly in younger age groups:
...it is very difficult to ask
[children] about aberrant behaviour of any kind because, of course, there are
severe levels of anxiety about what children are asked and how destructive to
their innocence even that process might be.
Thus in making this recommendation the committee recognises that it is
contingent on it being possible to overcome these problems.
The committee recommends that the Commonwealth through the National
Health and Medical Research Council or other appropriate body commission a
major longitudinal study into the effects of premature and inappropriate
sexualisation of children.
Harms associated with sexualising
and objectifying images
Body image and self-esteem
The committee received a considerable amount of evidence claiming that
...[a] connection between the inappropriate sexualising of
children and measurable harm, such as body image dissatisfaction, eating
disorders, low self-esteem, poorer academic performance, depression and
The WFA, citing the APA report on the sexualisation of girls, submitted:
...exposure to ideals of sexual attractiveness contributes to body
image dissatisfaction and eating disorders...[Sexualisation] was linked with
three of the most common mental health problems in girls and women: eating
disorders, low self-esteem and depression or depressed mood.
Ms Melinda Tankard Reist, Director, WFA, offered the following
statistics on rates of eating disorders amongst Australian girls:
...we know that one in 100 adolescent girls in Australia develops
anorexia, which is the third most common chronic illness for adolescent girls
in Australia and the most fatal of all psychiatric illnesses. We know that one
in five are bulimic...A study published late last year found that one in five
girls aged 12 and 13 regularly uses fasting and vomiting to lose weight and
that fasting was the most widely practised diet technique for girls aged 12 to
WFA believed that this was connected to the 'overemphasis of
hyper-sexualised imagery of girls and women that makes young women feel
particularly bad about themselves'.
Ms Gordon reported that, in her experience as a practising psychologist,
she had observed increasingly younger children presenting with body-image and
self-esteem disorders, which she felt was the consequences of their 'overt
I see girls younger and younger becoming depressed. We see girls
younger and younger being hospitalised with eating disorders and with concerns
about their body and their self-esteem.
Professor Elizabeth Handsley, Vice President, Australian Council on
Children and the Media (ACCM), explained that, apart from the greater general exposure
of children to sexual imagery, ACCM was most concerned about the potential
harms arising from 'how children are represented to themselves'. She explained:
We look around and we see images of children that are
sexualised, not in the sense that they make children into sexual objects in the
normal sense, but more that they associate children with the trappings of adult
sexuality. So they do not necessarily make children sexual objects but they
engender a self-image within children that is associated with sexual
SHIne SA submitted that sexualisation of children also 'works against
healthy behaviours, including 'decision making around personal safety in girls
and boys'. This is because the media:
...reinforces the concept that “risky
people and risky behaviours” are the cause of sexual health issues such as
rape, abortion and sexually transmitted infections among teenage girls (and
younger) and not lack of appropriate policy.
Ms Kaisu Vartto, Chief Executive Officer, SHine SA, indicated that
sexualisation of children in the media was a likely factor in the relatively
low average age of first sexual intercourse in Australia:
In Australia, the average age of first sexual intercourse is 16,
whereas in countries like Scandinavia and in countries in Western Europe it is
18. Why? What is actually influencing that? One of the factors, according to
research, is the sexualisation of children in the media and portraying sex as
being able to sell everything.
This view was supported by the ARCSHS. The ARCSHS conducts a five-yearly
regular survey into the 'sexual health, behaviour, attitudes and knowledge of
young people'. Results for the 2003 survey confirmed that young people are
becoming sexually active on average at age 16. They are also engaging in a
wider range of sexual practices for a longer period until marriage.
An anecdotal example of changes in the sexual behaviour and attitudes of
young people was given by Professor Anne Mitchell, Director, Community Liaison
and Education Unit, ARCSHS, who advised that young people were thought to be
more often engaging in oral sex as a form of 'casual foreplay'. This view was
supported by the 2003 ARCSHS survey, which found that young people were less
inclined to view oral sex as sex per se.
In addition, Ms Walsh indicated that a high number of boys and girls are
reporting having had sex that they regret:
Another thing that I would describe as aberrant is the number of
kids who have had sex that they regret...They are describing it also as ‘unwanted
sex’. That is a very broad term, but they are generally saying that it is sex
they had while they were drunk, which they definitely regretted and which they
felt their partner had pressured them into.
The committee heard that the sexual behaviour of Australian children was
also resulting in increased rates of sexually transmitted infections, STIs. Ms Ann
Brassil, Chief Executive Officer, Family Planning NSW (FPNSW) advised:
STI rates, particularly in younger children, have been
increasing. We have had a massive increase in cases of chlamydia, which is a
sexually transmitted infection.
Potential benefits of media
The committee notes that evidence was offered of the potential for media
to deliver outcomes, material and/or messages that may offer children positive
avenues of personal development or otherwise act to counter negative and/or
sexualising content. Dr Sally Cockburn, who appeared before the committee in a
private capacity, observed:
...only a couple of weeks ago...[there was] the 14-year-old girl who
was going to be the face of the Sydney fashion show. That is...a very good
example of the media, in a positive way. The news came out at nine o’clock in the morning. By three o’clock that afternoon the story was dead
because...the Sydney fashion show agreed to drop [her]...[That] is an example of
where the media actually did what you and I would probably want to have seen
Dr Albury observed that media offers the potential for children to both
explore and express ideas connected to their sexual development:
Media and popular culture also offer safe avenues for young
people to explore fantasies—for example, in the form of crushes on
celebrities—and to conceptually practise sexual and romantic behaviour that
they may not feel ready for in real life. In addition, many young people are
not simply media consumers. Many generate media themselves and are able to
create alternative images which reflect their exploration of issues such as
sexuality, body image, self-esteem and emotional relationships.
The actual and potential benefits of television to children's social, emotional and
intellectual development were the subject of a number of submissions. Ms Gordon
acknowledged that, while there appears to be a correlation between media and
sexualisation of children, there is insufficient evidence to say that
television is responsible for the sexualisation of children.
The Australian Children's Television Foundation submitted that:
...because of its ubiquity and influence, television is a powerful
agent of socialisation'.
Based on the preceding analysis and discussion, the committee observes
that, although children today are exposed to a multitude of messages and
influences via the media, and particularly material that is sexual in theme or
nature, the effect of this on their emotional, physical and sexual development
is not well understood from a scientific or clinical perspective.
The committee received no evidence demonstrating direct causal links
between exposure to sexual or objectifying images and products, although one
study on adult women found a correlation between certain self- and body-image
disorders and the prevalence of sexualising and objectifying imagery. There is
also clearly a strong correlation between the increase in sexual imagery and
the presentation of stereotyped images of young women, both as to their
appearance and their social roles, and the growing incidence of eating and
other disorders related to body image and earlier participation in sexual
The lack of research demonstrating the effects of premature
sexualisation on children was contrasted by the anecdotal claims, contained in
many private submissions, which suggested that many people believe exposure to
sexual imagery in the media is harmful to children's development.
Professor Handsley acknowledged the uncertain state of knowledge on the
effects of the media on children's development, but argued for the committee to
adopt a precautionary approach on the basis that any potential for harm to
children justifies a prescriptive or interventionist response:
...we might never know for sure exactly what affects children in
what way. But, at the very least, we can say there is some evidence that it is
likely that these sorts of images and messages are harmful to children in the
If we wait until there is absolute 100 per cent proof and nobody
can possibly argue anymore that there is no harm to children, the amount of
harm that could possibly be done to children in the meantime is immeasurable.
So this is a clear example of a situation where a precautionary principle needs
to be applied in favour of protecting children from things that are harmful.
The committee acknowledges the uncertain state of the evidence but
supports the view of Professor Handsley that a precautionary approach is
justified. In the following chapters the committee makes a number of
recommendations to tighten the regulation of media with regard to advertising
and content directed at children.
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