Sexualisation of children report

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.

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  1. Excellent points, Andrew.

    It seems to be too easy, for some people who find the sexualisation of children disturbing, to jump straight to the banning/censorship mentality. I too think that the answer is more education about sexual health and relationships so that sexualised advertising is more readily recognised for what it is and how it’s trying to exploit the consumer.

    If such advertising ceases to nudge the audience to buy stuff it will cease to be employed.

  2. Andrew, just a quick note to remind you to turn the lights to the office out when you leave this afternoon.

  3. Andrew

    As someone who was invited to put a submission into the Senate Inquiry (with my colleague Dr Kath Albury) I have to say that I thought your post makes many good points. Giving evidence before the Inquiry made it clear to us how robust the debate between Senators involved in it was – as were the exchanges between submissions. We were extremely pleased with the report because it reflected our own approach – an evidence-based approach and one that endorses the use of resources to support educational initiatives and greater public participation.

    The problem, as I see it, is that when this issue plays out in the popular media there’s a tendency to demonise all industry forces and call for total government control. I’m no industry advocate – in fact I’ve spent a lot of time serving on a board that polices the current self-regulation system governing advertising and doing my best to represent community standards in that process. But I also think that in a convergent media era there are some serious public policy issues to be cashed out around how we give citizens a say about media content, a sense of control and where the self-regulation and govt mix falls. To assume, as Dr Hamilton apparently does, that the advertising industry can only be characterised as a deus ex machina in this mix is to radically simplify the interactions between industry, government and the public.

    Anyway, I’m really writing to say that I think the Senate Inquiry grazed the surface of an important issue and one that bears much more evidence-based work. The Senate should be commended for getting this issue on to the public agenda in a way that let the evidence and the different views be aired.

    Many thanks also for your work on behalf of all of us. It’s an impressive record of public service and as someone who once worked in the press gallery I’m very aware of how much unseen work politicians do.


    Catharine Lumby
    Director of the Journalism and Media Research Centre, UNS

  4. Senator! In the last two days,I think, cannot remember obviously, I read in the SMH that it was all a myth the bad behaviour patterns of today’s children.{I felt I had read the same article before then,upon reading it} Today in the local Coffs Advocate,they have found reason to claim Australian overweightness.There are reasons why kids put on weight,there are reasons why kids play up that are dietary.It may be so that advertisers live in the same Universe as us,and they live in the same Universe of offering drugs to Doctor’s to try.And both children’s diseases and adult diseases have been co-invented at the point of a drug being available to do certain things.There is something really abysmal about statistics being presented lately,which almost seem desperate in approving and condemning.So even Vitamin C Zinc etc. are claimed in the Coffs Coast Advocate to have really no effects in use to quell the common cold and health matters..Even when last time I read Vitamin C matters take it on feeling a cold was coming on and Echinacea is now considered useless.So apparently until the next episode of’ “who are the Experts”,the amazing Coffs Coast Advocate will tell us the truth.If it isn’t them it will be someone else,re kids, weight,parental neglect,etc.If surfing the Internet destroys our capacity to think,its because,the surfing is being used not to think.I think,blaming parents in even a mildly reproaching way,is sort of selected memory,because we may have went to school with them,etc, and saw something in their make up which was part rebellion and part learning difficulty.But having a HECS type structure for parents in the six months of early preggo or anything that reverses parenting into school like guidance is really pathetic,carer overkill.Plainly its human character to think our own families are somewhat more intelligent than others,I am not so sure of that,as non parent and the gush of proud parent leaves me cold sometimes.So do statistics on intelligence!

  5. Hi Andrew,

    Excellent points. It’s far too simplistic to simply storm through the cultural landscape wielding a scythe to anything remotely considered problematic or damaging. As you said, there’s no sense in sugar coating childhood when sexually provocative images will hit them once they turn 16.

    The problem of excessive raunch is a societal one. It’s unrealistic for groups like Family First et al to assume it’s one giant industry conspiracy when everyone in society is active in reinforcing these cultural expectations.

    I don’t think the answer is as simple as banning Bratz dolls. I think we do need to ask the question of how a toy company comes to the conclusion that it’s okay to sell such rigid standards of femininity to little girls – but also why there has proven to be such an overwhelming market for it. What’s the cultural economy that parents are buying into? Why are little girls responding so enthusiastically to it?

    There was an interesting article in the Age on the weekend about children’s publishing, and the prevalence of strong male characters as opposed to females. It seems to me that the answer isn’t to continue to write strong heroic characters for the boys simply to keep them reading, but to make more prevalent the role of females as central protagonist and weather the (probably short) dip in sales following that.

    There is a crisis in identity development in young children, particularly girls, but the answer must surely lie in changing society rather than putting shackles on it.

  6. I think I agree with Steve Fielding on this issue.

    There is already too much sex education at too young an age – with no moral training to go with it.

    Companies should be banned from marketing inappropriate items to little girls.

    I think a wholesale crackdown would be better than a little tickle with a feather.

    The media have quite a lot to answer for, since they have such a huge influence on the society. They have largely created the societal problem, and cannot be divorced from it.

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