The Senate Committee report into the sexualisation of children was tabled last week. It doesn’t seem to have pleased some of the children’s advocacy groups, or Family First for that matter. Clive Hamilton, who has campaigned on the issue for some time, is also pretty peeved, if his piece in Crikey is anything to go by – although I have to say I found his ‘pretend advertising industry memo’ a rather strange way to try to make his case.
However I think the report isn’t too bad. Even though I was Deputy Chair of the Committee, I didn’t get the chance to attend the hearings because of commitments on other Committees. But as I’m on the Committee, I did make sure I was broadly OK with the final report before it was finalised.
I think the best of the recommendations is the final one, which calls for more comprehensive education programs on sexual health and relationships. A closer look at what music videos are screened in children’s viewing hours and a streamlining of the advertising complaints system are also reasonable recommendations. But in the absence of more specific evidence about the harmfulness of specific types of advertisements or magazines aimed at young teenagers, I would have been concerned if proposals had been adopted to too tightly restrict or regulate what can and can’t be done.
Given the nature of the inquiry – that is, relatively brief and with a number of Senators who are not experts on the topic looking at the issue for the first time – I think it would have been risky to have gone in too hard too quickly. Trying to gather more evidence and re-examining the issue in 18 months is a more responsible approach to what is a complex matter, some aspects of which are not really that easy to pin down.
As I’ve indicated some time ago, I think the problem of the sexualisation of children is real and serious. But I also think it is a societal one, rather than something which can just be blamed on advertisers as though they somehow inhabit a universe separate to our own.
The report rightly notes the wisdom of a precautionary approach in trying to shield children from harm. But harm can come from restricting access to things, as well as in being exposed to things. The sexuality of children might not be as developed as an adult, but it doesn’t help to act as though young teenagers have no sexuality at all until the moment they turn 16.
In an era where so many parents are clearing seriously failing in looking after the welfare of their children, and seem isolated from wider social support in that task, saying ‘leave it up to the parents’ isn’t good enough. But for better or worse – or no doubt, a mixture of both – we live in a society where sexual imagery is widespread. There is also a greater degree of openness about sex than a couple of generations ago. ‘Cracking down’ on advertisers might make people feel good, but I doubt it would seriously assist in addressing this problem. And if such moves were accompanied by wider moves enforcing greater prurience and secretiveness about sex and sexuality, it could well be counter-productive.