‘A baby is nothing but a bundle of possibilities.’ So said the prominent nineteenth century abolitionist and liberal clergyman, Henry Ward Beecher.
The inheritance of genetics aside, children have always been very much a product of the nurturing they receive and the environment in which they receive it. Genetic influence itself is often subject to the effects of environment.
A new UK poll reveals that large numbers of parents are concerned that society may be creating the wrong environment for their children. The study shows that 88 percent of parents feel their children are under pressure to grow up too quickly, especially in the area of sexual behaviour.
The study was commissioned by children's minister Sarah Teather and conducted by the chief executive of the Mothers’ Union charity.
It shows that 41 percent of parents have, in the last three months, seen TV programmes or commercials that they consider to be wrong for their children to view, because of their sexual content.
Forty percent of parents say they’ve seen, in the same time frame, window displays or advertising hoardings to which children should not be exposed.
This comes amidst a growing sense of concern that children are not being adequately protected either by the nine o’clock watershed in broadcast media, or by the weak regulation covering internet material for children.
The latter is increasingly a concern given the burgeoning growth of mobile internet as part of the so-called ‘third internet revolution’. This allows even less interaction from parents with what their children are watching online.
Increasingly, children and young teens avoid television – except perhaps where TV programming appears online. They prefer to engage with new media, including video sites and the now ubiquitous social networking platforms.
The watershed which regulates mainstream, old-school broadcasters has no impact in the world of cybercasting.
YouTube alone receives 24 hours worth of video every minute. It is now such a potent force in the world of visual media that Hollywood movie companies are now in talks with YouTube about producing unique content for its platform.
One study showed that British kids now spend half as much time in class as they do in front of screens. Another 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.
Despite their growing influence on children and young teens, groups like YouTube and Vimeo are largely left to regulate themselves on the basis of market forces. If enough people complain about a video, it will be removed.
The problem for regulators, of course, is that the internet represents a largely borderless frontier, where governments are unsure about who has the power to regulate what. And the speed of uploading makes it difficult for both providers and regulators to pre-emptively monitor content.
Despite these challenges, in the lead up to last year’s general election David Cameron condemned the ‘inappropriate sexualisation’ of children. He said that youngsters must be protected from irresponsible advertising.
At the time, Mr. Cameron outlined a series of proposals aimed at disciplining companies who 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.
Now it is time to see whether he was serious and whether he will spend political currency within the coalition to support his statements.
Already, press reports suggest that Lib Dem coalition members have moderated Tory demands for bans on video products including some music videos. Apparently, they’re wary of being accused of censorship.
This is perhaps to be expected from a political party with the word ‘liberal’ in its banner, yet when it comes to protecting children and teens, censorship is exactly what’s called for.
Censorship is, at its best, nothing more than the legal codification of proven community values for the protection of those who cannot protect themselves.
It represents a civilised society’s recognition of the fact that freedom of speech or expression does not eliminate responsibility we all share for promoting the welfare of the community as a whole.
Granted, there will always be lively debate about what should and should not be censored, and about who controls the reins of censorship authorities. Censorship should never be used as a weapon by one group for the promulgation of its particular values or views (though it all too often it is).
Yet to argue against censorship where children are concerned is both disingenuous and foolhardy. It is disingenuous for the simple reason that media censorship already exists, weak though it often is.
The broadcast watershed is a form of censorship, as is the regulation of advertising product. The recent banning of a Jack Wills clothing commercial by the Advertising Standards Authority was a case in point.
The Authority ruled that, in the way it depicted sexualised images, the company was overstepping the lines of propriety, because the catalogue was likely to be seen by teenagers. This was an exercise in censorship – and a right and proper one.
In a sense, all laws are exercises in censorship. Society says that, in the interests of promoting a free and equitable social order, there are certain things individuals should not be allowed to do. Laws codify that belief and provide protection for shared values.
Avoiding censorship when it comes to media product is foolhardy because ensuring a healthy future for society means investing in the generation who will carry that future on their shoulders.
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.
Not only are children being exposed to adult sexuality at too young an age; they’re often exposed to images of other children dressed or posed in sexually provocative ways.
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.
Arguably, overt cultural sexualisation also has an impact on teenage identity. There are doubtless many reasons why the UK has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the EU. However, I seriously doubt that anyone could make a watertight case for the notion that an over-sexualisation of their pop-culture isn’t among them.
According to some experts, an overt sexualisation of children and young teens can also play a role in grooming children for paedophiles. It prepares them for sexual interaction with older teenagers or adults.
Furthermore, by representing children as miniature adults playing sexual roles, we may be sending a message to paedophiles, suggesting that children are sexually available.
Of course, some people, politicos among them, will be wary of any tougher stance on censorship when it comes to children and young teens.
Their nervousness reflects an inability to face up to a much wider issue – the increasing sexualisation of adult pop-culture. This indirectly exposes children to material they’re not yet equipped to handle – if indeed anybodyis.
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 our political or ideological persuasion, our collective commitment must remain the same. Children are our greatest resource; we must protect them at all costs.