||Is childhood becoming oversexed?
By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette
Sunday, May 08, 2005
With their made-up eyes, pouty lips
and short skirts, these girls look
like real party dolls.
In fact, they are dolls. They're the
Bratz, the 10-inch "girls with a
passion for fashion" whose
skyrocketing popularity among young
girls has ignited a marketing war with
Barbie, the long-reigning queen of the
fashion doll world. Compared with the
flirtatious-looking Bratz, Barbie
looks like the scrub-cheeked -- albeit
curvaceous -- girl-next-door.
As thousands of girls dump Barbie for
the Bratz, child development experts
worry. They see the Bratz as the
cutting edge of a worrisome trend: the
increasing use of sexual imagery in
products marketed to young children.
They call it the "sexualization of
childhood" and point to other
examples: thong underwear emblazoned
with sexually suggestive phrases for
6-year-old girls; "pimp" Halloween
costumes for little boys; the
increasingly sexually explicit content
of TV shows, movies, and music CDs.
Some products, like the Bratz dolls,
are specifically aimed at children.
Others are marketed to teens but
attract younger children.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation
report showed that most American
children age 8 and above have TVs in
their bedrooms and no parental rules
about what they watch. Among the top
15 TV shows with children age 2 to 11
are "American Idol," "Survivor" and
"Desperate Housewives," according to
recent A.C. Nielsen statistics
reported in the Orlando (Fla.,)
Child development experts worry that
such a sex-saturated culture
encourages children and young adults
to define themselves mainly by how
sexy they are, and to see sex as the
most important quality in a successful
"It's not the fact that children are
learning about sex when they are young
that is a problem. The problem is what
today's sexualized environment is
teaching them," said Diane Levin, a
Wheelock College child development
That environment, she said, is
undermining normal sexual development
and promoting precocious sexual
behavior, such as the apparently
increasing popularity of oral sex.
"It doesn't bode well for the future
of intimate and caring relationships
in which sex is a part when today's
children grow up," said Levin, whose
essay, "So Sexy, So Soon," is included
in the newly published. "Childhood
Lost: How American Culture Is Failing
Our Children," edited by Point Park
College psychology professor Sharna
Marketers, however, contend that
today's kids are growing up in a
different world than their parents did
and are savvier at younger ages. Some
also complain that adults read too
much into products that kids see
merely as "fashion forward" or "cool."
They point to government data showing
a decline in teen pregnancies and an
increase in the number of kids who
wait longer to have sexual intercourse
for the first time.
Ultimately, marketers say, it's up to
parents to decide what their children
buy and watch.
"That's what parents are for -- they
can't duck that responsibility," said
Daniel Jaffe, executive director of
the Association of National
Advertisers, a Washington, D.C.-based
group that represents major
advertisers. "My own view is that this
is the most important thing that
parents can do for their kids --
setting limits. Kids are looking for
parents to tell them what is right and
what is wrong."
Child development experts counter that
this often is an impossible task for
parents when they are up against
companies that spend more than $15
billion a year on marketing to
children. That figure includes more
than just sex-linked products, of
course, but it helps highlight the
challenge, the experts say.
"People have been making money off
this for a long time, but I think it
is getting worse," said Joan Jacobs
Brumberg, a Cornell University
professor and author of "The Body
Project: An Intimate History of
Jean Kilbourne, a visiting research
scholar at the Wellesley College
Centers for Women and author of "Can't
Buy Me Love: How Advertising Changes
the Way We Think and Feel," said
"children are sexual beings. But in an
ideal world they grow into their
sexuality gradually, and in an
age-appropriate way. Now, there is so
much pressure on them at a young age
to model an adult version of sex that
is way beyond their comprehension."
Vicky Rideout, a Kaiser Family
Foundation vice president who heads
the group's study of entertainment
media and health, said "kids are just
consuming huge amounts of media. ...
As part of that, they watch a lot of
TV, video and movies that aren't
intended for their age and, in the
process, pick up a lot of messages."
Many parents don't believe it, but
focus groups that Kaiser recently did
with "tweens" -- children age 8 to 12
-- showed a "50-50 split," Rideout
said. "For some of these kids, it's
going right over their heads. But
others are picking up on every single
Gary Cross, a Penn State University
modern history professor and author of
"The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous
Innocence and Modern American
Children's Culture," said children
always have liked to emulate older
kids or grown-ups. And "being more
grown-up in a society that is highly
sexualized means being sexual," he
Jim Silver, editor of "Toy Wishes"
magazine and a veteran observer of the
toy and children's entertainment
scene, said it was the popularity of
pop singer Britney Spears that
inspired toys like the Bratz dolls and
clothes like the navel-showing "belly"
"It's the Britney-izing of America,"
Silver said. "People don't realize how
big she really was five years ago."
Many parents, however, can attest to
the persistent cultural power of
Spears and other sexy pop stars like
the Spice Girls, Levin said. A woman
recently told Levin the story of how
her 4-year-old granddaughter began
gyrating and singing the song "Let Me
Be Your Lover" when a shoe salesman
asked what was her favorite Spice
The ubiquitous nature of sexual
imagery and content has "de-sensitized
parents" to its impact on children,
who don't understand much of it and
sometimes even find it scary, Levin
said. Parents "have come to accept
such sexualized content as Britney
Spears, Bratz dolls and professional
wrestling females as a regular part of
even young children's environment."
Issac Larian, president of MGA
Entertainment, which makes the Bratz
dolls, contends that child development
experts have got it wrong.
"Unfortunately, it is the polluted
mind of some adults who 'see sex' in
everything. If you ask the kids [and
we have] what do they think of Bratz,
they will tell you they are beautiful,
inspirational and multiethnic," Larian
"Bratz dolls show the society and the
girls and their parents the positive
messages of: 'It's O.K. to be
multicultural and multiethnic in this
world' [and] 'it's O.K. to be able to
express yourself and have
self-confidence as a girl.' "
Sean Pillot de Chenecey, an
international marketing consultant,
believes some marketers have gone too
far and are risking a backlash from
parents. "Last year, there was outrage
in the U.K. over thongs for
10-year-olds being sold with an image
of a cherry and the words 'Eat me' on
the front," he said. "You couldn't
make this stuff up, it's so
Daniel Acuff, a veteran youth
marketing consultant, agreed that
"there is a backlash in the offing"
and that marketers must take
responsibility for pushing products
that are too sexy, violent or
unhealthy for children.
Acuff, the co-author (with Robert
Reiher) of the about-to-be-published
book, "Kidnapped! How Irresponsible
Marketers Are Stealing the Minds of
Your Children," said parents need to
get involved and understand that
marketers are bottom-line driven.
"A lot of the marketers are young
themselves, and don't really have the
values perspective that is needed,"
Acuff said. "Raising health children
truly 'takes a village,' with everyone
playing their part."
This article is copyrighted material, the use of
which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We
are making such material available in our efforts to advance
understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic,
democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this
constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided
for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17
U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without
profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the
included information for research and educational purposes. For more
information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml If
you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your
own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the
Tips for parents
are some tips for helping kids avoid or interpret images
and information about sex. They were suggested by
Wheelock College child development professor Diane
Limit media. Put limits on
"screen time" of all types, and get TVs and other
electronic devices out of kids' bedrooms and into rooms
where parents can see what they are
Get beyond "just say no" but do
say no. Listen to children's reasons for wanting a
certain product or watching a particular show, and talk
with them about why you think it is inappropriate.
Establish open lines of
communication in talking about sex with children
early on so they feel comfortable asking about sexual
issues that confuse or concern them as they get older.
When young children are exposed
to age-inappropriate sexual images and messages, expect
them to work out their feelings in their play, art and
conversations. Try not to make young children feel
guilty for drawing pictures of women with large breasts,
for example, if they saw such women on a wrestling show
the previous night.
When talking to kids about
sexual issues, try to find out what they already know,
which can guide what you say next. For example, if a
child brings up a specific subject, before jumping in
with the "right" answer, first ask, "What have you heard
Stay informed. Join our mailing list.
Subscribers receive no more than 1-2 emails per week.