In a speech this week the Conservative Party leader David Cameron condemned the "inappropriate sexualisation" of children and said that youngsters must be protected from irresponsible advertising.
He promised that if elected to govern his party will give British children back their childhood.
"What we are saying is that you can't cut children off from the commercial world," he said, "but we should be able to help parents to make sure that our children get a childhood and that they are not subject to unnecessary and inappropriate commercialisation and sexualisation too young."
He outlined a series of proposals aimed at disciplining companies are step over the lines of propriety in targeting youngsters, particularly through their marketing. For example, he proposed that companies found to be acting in inappropriate ways toward children might have their right to bid for government contracts suspended for three years.
Whether or not this could work in the age of largely borderless and unregulated internet-driven media is a matter for debate. But the fact that politicians of any persuasion are engaging in debates about children’s issues is very welcome.
When it comes to the sexualisation of young children, there are two major issues. The first concerns the increasing sexualisation of adult pop-culture generally, especially through the media. This indirectly exposes children to material they’re not yet equipped to handle – if indeed anybody is.
The second is the production of material that deliberately targets children, often by featuring children in a highly sexualised way, or by inviting children to develop unhealthy obsessions with romance or physical attractiveness.
Generally speaking, sex and sexuality have become much more visible in the mainstream culture over the past decade. There is a much more open and widespread discussion of sexual values and practices today than ever before, especially in the media.
Images and practices that were not long ago only associated with pornography are now, in some areas, becoming part of mainstream media output.
This, combined with the growth of the so-called sexual media (what some call the online “pornosphere”) and the development of new forms of sexual experience, such as “cyber” or “avatar” internet sex, makes it harder for parents to protect their children from premature sexualisation.
All of this sets off alarm bells when it comes to children. The sexualisation of young children is happening through advertising, TV programmes, music videos, toys, internet games and other material available online.
Kids today spend more time than ever exposed to TV and computer screens. One study showed that British kids now spend half as much time in class as they do in front of screens.
A market research study surveyed 1,800 British children aged five to 16. It found that they spend an average of 2.7 hours a day watching TV, 1.5 on the internet and 1.3 playing on games consoles. In contrast, kids spend just over half an hour reading books.
Yet images of sexualised children are becoming increasingly common in TV and online advertising material. Children as young as twelve, especially girls, are dressed and posed in the same way as sexy adult models.
The same thing is happening in the print media. There are more and more magazines pitched solely at pre-pubescent girls and which often feature children in “grown-up” guises. One Australian study called this an example of "corporate paedophilia".
Overt sexualisation presents grave risks to young children. Studies have long linked it with eating disorders in children and teenagers – and nowadays these disorders are showing up in younger and younger children. Children as young as five or six are starving themselves to achieve the “perfect” body image.
The sense that their bodies are undesirable can lead children to withdraw from sporting activities, which in turn leads to problems with obesity and other health issues. It also often leads to an all round sense of inadequacy.
Because of a focus on the physical, a premature engagement with sexual identity can also prevent children from developing intellectually, artistically and socially.
On top of this, many experts believe that the sexualisation of children can play a role in grooming children for paedophiles, by preparing them for sexual interaction with older teenagers or adults. Magazines for young girls already encourage children of primary school age to have romantic crushes on adult male celebrities.
Representing children as miniature adults playing sexual roles may also send a message to paedophiles, suggesting that whatever the law says, children are sexually available.
Despite the repeated warnings from psychologists and others, the trend towards increasingly sexualised representations of childhood in advertising, marketing and programme-making shows no signs of slowing down. So, how should we as a society react?
First, it must be said that the health of a society can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. Nobody is more vulnerable and dependent than a child. How we treat children says a great deal about the morality and sanity of our society.
Any society that seems intent on destroying its own future can hardly be considered healthy, safe or sane.
For their part, politicians can do more to protect children from over-sexualised advertising and media.
As well as penalising companies who overstep reasonable bounds in their marketing, politicos could also insist on a reduction in the amount of sexualised images and storylines in TV programmes shown before the 9 p.m. watershed.
When it comes to children and what they’re exposed to, the media cannot regulate itself. Left to its own devices, the media more often than not will act in its own interests, opting for the profit-motive. This is despite the fact that there are, within media organisations, many truly community-minded individuals, at all levels.
Without deliberate legal restraint, the culture of cut-throat competition in a segmented marketplace will lead media companies to continue to push the boundaries of what is acceptable.
Governments can also do more to support the family unit.
International studies have repeatedly shown that children who’re brought up by both a mother and father in a loving, harmonious relationship are usually less likely to suffer psychological and developmental problems later on. Yet governments of all stripes have often tended to throw support behind every form of family but the one that has held civilisation together for centuries.
Yes, our politicians can do more, but at the end of the day there’s only so much any government can do. Unless we want ours to become more of a nanny state than it is already, we as parents need to step up to the plate, too.
We can't watch over our kids 24/7, but we can build an open and trusting relationship with them, so that if there are threats to their health, physically or psychologically, we are the first to know and respond.
It’s vital that parents and not government bureaucracies decide on the pace at which their children are educated when it comes to their sexuality.
Many parents wait for their children to openly ask questions about sexuality and relationships before giving any sort of guidance. However, even in the closest of families, children often lack the courage or the vocabulary to pose the questions they want to ask.
Parents need to be proactive, talking as openly with their children as is appropriate, especially if highly sexualised material has come across their path.
Parents can also affirm the physical value and attractiveness of their children. Sometimes, communicating this can be simply a matter of touch. Physical touch is often abused in our society, but the human body is built for touch and detachment can produce very sad results.
Giving your child a pat on the back, a handshake or even a reassuring arm around the shoulder can send a powerful message of love and acceptance.
Giving children positive discipline can also give them the confidence to negotiate the changes they will experience physically and psychologically as they move toward puberty. Healthy and positive discipline – which isn’t punitive but looks for the best from the child – draws boundaries for behaviour and provides security.
At the end of the day, sexualisation of children is a problem that must be tackled on many levels at once. Governments, the courts, programme-producers, internet game-designers, advertisers and parents will all play a role.
Whatever government is in power, a collective commitment must remain the same. Children are our greatest resource; we must protect them at all costs.