The Impact of the Media on Children Sexual Identities

Children using smartphones

This blog post continues the discussion of academic literature around the topis of media and children gendered and sexual identities (see the first part in my previous article on sexualisation).

The rapid development of the internet and mobile technology has brought with it the entrance of the media into our everyday lives in ways that we could not have imagined prior to the 1990s; children born from the mid-1980s onward have experienced a level of media exposure throughout their developmental years that was hitherto unheard of. This trend only continues to grow—and fast.  A study recently conducted by the family advocacy organization Common Sense Media found that 38% of children under the age of 2 have used a mobile device for playing games, watching videos or other media-related purposes. As recently as the year 2011, only 10% had.(1) In the UK, three quarters of 5-15 year olds have internet access at home and 71% have a TV set in their rooms, followed by 62% with a gaming console as well, and 54% own their own mobile phones (Ofcom, 2007). All in all, a great many young people have 24-hour independent access to media.

Of course, wherever the media goes, sex soon follows. Sex sells, after all, and in a world of increasing visual and auditory clutter, it’s one of the few tools left by which a piece of media can woo our fleeting attention. In a previous article, we both debunked some of the common misconceptions surrounding early exposure to sexualised media (such as the idea that it necessarily leads to higher rates of teenage pregnancy and abortion) and introduced the concept of agency; namely, the deeper debate between whether this exposure is removing some of the traditional negative stigma from female sexuality and encouraging the free expression of desire and choice, or whether it is encouraging sexual behaviour in such a way that young people are getting more and more willing to open themselves up to (or perpetrate) exploitation. In essence, are we dealing with the liberal encouragement of pleasure, or the destruction of natural innocence in favour of danger?

Proving either stance is fraught with obvious difficulty; while some studies have been able to show, for example, that teens who watch more than two hours of television per day are 30% more likely to have sex, regardless of parental attitudes, (parental disapproval was actually shown to more than double this likelihood) (2) assessing how much agency these teens wield on a case-by-case basis is challenging, if not impossible.

To illustrate, teens who watch more than two hours of television per day may well do so because they are having social difficulties at school, have few friends, and thus, are quicker to leap into bed with other teens when the opportunity arises. Such teens would seem to be acting for acceptance or under the influence of peer pressure, rather than acting simply because the media told them to. Similarly, teens with strict parents are much more likely to suffer from poor self-esteem (and therefore an even greater craving for acceptance) (3), which could explain why the rates get even higher for those teens whose parents have very strict attitudes about sex.

While one might still argue the wisdom of those teens’ choices, if the above were true, the young people in question would still be acting with agency, regardless of the media’s influence. So how, then, lacking hard statistical data, do we measure the effect of children’s sexualisation on agency, on later pleasure experienced as young adults, or possible exposure to danger? In other words, the contextual factors at play make very difficult to make a fair assessment of media influences, as how can researchers isolate media effects from all the other (cultural, social, economic) influences in children’s lives?

One possible avenue of assessment is the observation of those so-called Millennials, particularly the young women who were so aggressively marketed to during the “Girl Power” decade that was the 1990s, and who are now adults. Indeed ‘girl power’ has become now a well-established and very successful marketing tool and a branding of girlhood (Klein 2000).  When I think back to the mid-90s, I invariably remember a time when one could not turn on the television set or surf the internet without being bombarded by images of all-girl music groups strutting proudly in crop tops, brassieres, mini-dresses, and enormous platform shoes. Many of the fans of these groups, particularly the Spice Girls, were as young as five years of age, or younger, a fact which inspired a great deal of concern at the time. In 1994, for instance, Mary Pipher in her book Reviving Ophelia– selling 1.6 million copies – decried our media-saturated culture for “poisoning” young girls.(4)

Today, those little girls are all grown up, and form both a demographic that retains the attention of marketers and the backbone of “third wave” feminism. Those who work closely with both media and young women (see for instance Kathleen Rowe Karlyn from have noticed an interesting trend:

“As a teacher and researcher of film studies and television and the mother of three daughters in early adulthood, I’ve been following the emergence of girl culture since the mid-nineties.  Recently I spoke to a large group of academics and other professionals who work with girls about the ways such media icons as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess and the Spice Girls challenge familiar representations of femininity by affirming female friendship, agency and physical power. Part of that pleasure involves reclaiming the right not only to the term “girl” but to “girly pleasures” trivialized by the culture at large, such as shopping and dressing up…  In a punchy and knowledgeable survey of girl culture in Spin magazine, Ann Powers describes how girls aggressively flaunt traits formerly viewed as demeaning by both feminists and misogynists: prettiness, ‘brattiness’, and sexual flamboyance.  And so, while retaining the critique of beauty culture and sexual abuse from the Second Wave, young women have complicated the older feminist critique of the male gaze as a weapon to put women in their place, and instead exploit the spotlight as a source of power and energy. Thus girls do not see a contradiction between female power and assertive sexuality” (4)

If the above is true, it would seem the end result of the sexualisation of media consumed by children in the mid-1990s is one of power, agency, and primarily, the introduction of pleasure, rather than danger.

But of course, one cannot take the above to be true without acknowledging that the media does, in fact, have the power to influence young people’s attitudes about sexuality, in which case, the opposite of what is described above could as easily be considered true. And, if you have kept up with popular culture at all since the decline of the Spice Girls and their ilk, you have no doubt witnessed a masquerade of “girl power” with the return of troubling levels of misogyny and sexual exploitation. If I compare the current times with the 1980’s in which I grown up as a teenager, it seems evident that the situation has dramatically worsened (just consider the popular hyper-sexualisation of female characters currently characterising media and toy’s industries or the increasingly narrow beauty standards promoted by media and adverts).

In the early 2000s – at the same time as Paris Hilton and other similarly vapid but “pretty” socialites began to become adored by little girls – rap and hip hop rose to greater musical prominence, tugging misogyny along with their videos and lyrics. Rap heavyweight Eminem, for instance, infamous for his lyrics depicting threats of violence on girls and women (including his own mother), has enjoyed nearly a staggering 20 years of culture relevance. Eminem’s eighth album, released just last year (2013), casually builds on his existing reputation for misogyny, the rhythm is catchy but the other day I ‘ve actually decided to pay attention to one of the songs, I could not understand so I googled it and found out what it actually says: here we go (brace yourself!)

Snatch the bitch out her car through the window, she screamin/ I body slam her onto the cement, until the concrete gave and created a sinkhole / Bury this stink ho in it, then paid to have the street re-paved,” and: “I got 99 problems and the bitch ain’t one / She’s all 99 of them I need a machine gun / I take em all out I hope you hear this song / And go into a cardiac arrest, have a heart attack / And just drop dead and I’mma throw a fucking party after this.

Eminem is far from being alone in his troubling attitudes towards women: there are plenty of other singers – both males and females -willing to subscribe to this type of messages for the sake of profitable entertainment. As usual, sex sells and will continue to sell and music producers seem to play this card more and more. So, little girls today grow up watching their former Disney idols, such as Miley Cyrus, grind against singers like Robin Thicke, responsible for singing the notoriously problematic Blurred Lines, a song which blatantly tells a “good girl” that he “knows she wants it,” really. And then, of course, we have endless popular hip hop songs reducing women to “bitches” and “hoes” who, despite this obvious disrespect, willingly dance in the background of these singers’ videos, providing visual stimulation and nothing more than that. Many parents (including myself) wonder whether their daughters will see the transformation of Miley (or Britney and the like before her) as the natural passage from innocent girl to “real woman”.

Seen from this perspective, this appears mostly certainly as a culture of danger, particularly for women – as it encourages them to be available for exploitation and to accept violence – but also for young men, as it teaches them to see women and girls consistently in a devalued, sexualised way (with far less attention granted to their personality, charm, intellect, talents, etc..). By tying the concept of masculinity to being willing and able to ‘possess’ or use young women for sexual pleasure, young men who decline to join this trend are forced to put themselves at risk of bullying and isolation.

Prof. Rosalind Gill – a feminist and cultural theorist – suggests that “for young women today in post-feminist cultures, the display of a certain kind of sexual knowledge, sexual practice and sexual agency has become normative – indeed, a ‘technology of sexiness’ has replaced ‘innocence’ and ‘virtue’ as the commodity that young women are required to offer in the heterosexual marketplace” (7).

Braidotti (2006) conceptualizes a paradoxical “simultaneous displacement and refixing” of binary oppositions (e.g. masculine/feminine) as “one of the most problematic aspects of contemporary political culture” (9). She argues how the present culture produces, pushes and encompasses simultaneously opposite effects — degrees of gender equality with growing segregation of the sexes, resulting in gender trouble on the one hand and polarized sexual difference on the other.

How, then, are children today responding to and processing the danger aspect of this equation, which has become so prevalent in our post-millennial world? An interesting body of work has been produced by Prof. Emma Renold of Cardiff University and her associates – a research offering rich insight into how children navigate their sexual and gender identities in relation to the media and the sexualisation thereof.

Renold’s research revealed that girls feel a much greater pressure to conform to popular ideals of bodily attractiveness than boys feel, to the point of giving up “active” hobbies and sports to maintain a feminine shape. Girls also expressed a greater dissatisfaction with “dating culture,” with research showing that:

For some boys, simply having a girlfriend, any girl was enough to secure social status and popularity. In contrast, many girls highlighted the ways in which their status as girlfriends objectified them, particularly when girls attractiveness was rated and ranked. Many girls also resented how they were passed around and fought over by boys who wanted to claim them as theirs.” (5)

And yet, at the same time, girls found it more difficult to resist the pressure to be part of this dating culture than boys did. (5)

Likewise, girls who were deeply invested in “being girlfriends” were more likely to accept harassment and abuse, including keeping “nasty” text messages due to being “in love” and, true to the theory that male acceptance is hinging too heavily on female exploitation, young boys who were “positioned low down the gendered and sexual peer group hierarchies were also described as the same boys who would engage in harassing behaviour such as repeatedly asking girls out, or sending abusive texts to girls who refused to go out with them, or ended the relationship”.  Both genders reported instances of being “forced” via harassment by peers to engage in dating-related and/or sexual behaviour, such as being pushed and bullied into kissing.(5)

However, while the impacts of the “danger”aspect of the sexualization of the media can arguably be seen enacted in the above,it was also found that children are hardly passive observers shaped by the media without any awareness or agency of their own. In fact,

Many children offered powerful critical commentaries from nudity on MTV to air-brushed images of models in magazines. Many girls also drew a clear boundary between what their favourite celebrities would say, wear or do and their own lives. (5)

This important – and encouraging – aspect was also confirmed by the girls in my own research.

Renold’s research suggested that, if anything, rather than becoming more sexual in manner and dress due to the current attitudes toward female sexuality portrayed by the media, many young girls today so actively fear being labeled a “slut” that they prefer to cover up, and are once again moving away from being able to equivocate female power with aggressive sexuality. Many felt uncomfortable with the amount and the nature of sexuality expressed in music and music videos.

Children were also shown to be quite critical of sexual and gender norms, expressing the desire to fight issues such as sexism, but often not being sure how they could safely and effectively do so. Many children wished they could more freely express their concerns about issues to do with gender and sexuality in the context of their present lives, rather than in the context of their futures. Both boys and girls expressed the need for sex and relationship education that deals specifically with domestic and intimate partner violence “both within their communities and in their own and older relationship cultures,” showing that both genders are concerned about the levels of sexual violence they have witnessed.

In sum, children were witnessed to be practically crying out for a voice of their own, for better access to information and education regarding sexuality and gender issues, and for a meaningful way in which they could safely challenge entrenched gender and sexual norms while still in their formative years. Ergo, we can safely conclude that many children do not fall into these roles nor succumb to the pressures of the media due to passivity or lack of agency, but rather due to a perceived lack of viable alternatives.

In my own research what impressed me was the variety of roles these young girls would experiment with; phrases like “oh yes, but I do that only when I feel girly” were very common and often represent the “identity play” girls would constantly engage in. I love the term “contingent and ambiguous practices of identity” in Gonick et al.’s article (8) and I agree with their suggestion that:

“In posing the question “what comes after girl power?” we suggest that girls’ agency and resistance needs to be theorized as articulated and evidenced within the logic of the production of gender, the body, and sexual, racial, cultural (etc.) differences. This presents a complex, embodied equation of gendered subjectivity that is less about balances of agency (girl power) and compliance (girl victims) than it is about contingent and ambiguous practices of identity” (8).

Prof. Gauntlett (10) highlights the wide range of contradictory messages about gender and identities presented in today’s media as a positive factor, able to effectively widening the options available to young people’s in their own construction of identity:

“The contradictions are important (…) because the multiple messages contribute to the perception of an open realm of possibilities. In contrast with the past – or the modern popular view of the past – we no longer get singular, straightforward messages about ideal types of male and female identities (although certain groups of features are clearly promoted as more desirable than others). Instead, popular culture offers a range of stars, icons and characters from whom we can acceptably borrow bits and pieces of their public persona for use in our own. In addition, of course – and slightly contradictorily – individuals are encouraged to ‘be yourself’, and to be creative – within limits – about the presentation of self. This opens the possibilities for gender trouble, as discussed above. Today, nothing about identity is clear-cut, and the contradictory messages of popular culture make the ‘ideal’ model for the self even more indistinct – which is probably a good thing”.(10)

Regardless of one’s personal opinions on the level of pleasure vs. danger brought about by the media’s purported “sexualisation” of childhood, it should be agreed upon that children deserve a voice and a choice in these matters, one that is not drowned out exclusively by adult concerns or clouded by moral judgments. I personally believe that one effective way to foster agency in young people is to ensure that it is given to them before they have succumbed to the pressure to be “sexy” within the narrow parameters presented as acceptable by our heteronormative society. This can be effectively achieved through a more active discussion of gender practices and media content within the family to start with, and with much deeper and wide-ranging inclusion of media and marketing literacy, along with the discussion of topics relating to gender and sexuality, in the school curriculum, compared to what we have now.


Main references:
5. Renold, E (2005), Girls, Boys and Junior Sexualities, Routledge.
6. Klein, N. (2000). No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Toronto: Vintage Canada
7. Gill, R. (2007). Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility European Journal of Cultural Studies 10, no. 2: p.72.
8. Gonick, M ,Renold E., Ringrose J., Weems L. (2009) Rethinking Agency and Resistance: What Comes After Girl Power? Girlhood Studies Vol. 2 (2), 1–9, Berghahn Journals.
9. Braidotti, R. (2006). Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics. Cambridge: Polity Press.
10. Gauntlett, D. (2007). Media, Gender and Identity, Routledge.

39 thoughts on “The Impact of the Media on Children Sexual Identities

  1. Francesca, you bring such important information to our awareness in this excellent post on how the media impacts the sexual identities of children. I agree that these young minds could be reshaped with more active discussion of these topics in the home, at school, and in other creative ways. Thank you for all you do to challenge us to act.

    • I agree with you that parents should have more of a connection with their children and what they are exposed to in the media. I’m also glad that Francesca is working her way into nipping this in the bud. Without her, and her one voice, we wouldn’t have others joining her voice and making her a following of voices.

  2. Wow, I must say very long article for a post but remarkably well written and researched, what an interesting read. I have shared it on all my platforms, although it will be probably too academic for some of my followers as you know, lol! Thanks Francesca 😉

  3. There is no doubt in my mind that the media impacts both positively and negatively the children of the most recent era, and the era that came before it. Growing up with two smaller siblings always had me worried that my siblings would follow media icons such as Disney singers and rap artists and feel like when they changed their tune to more violence, more stereotypical tropes that they would indeed see that as okay. Fortunately my siblings are smart and have not taken to the media in this way.

    Overall though, I do think media reflects a lot of bad morals that our children should be aware of. Rather then becoming brainwashed into thinking its okay for there to be violence against women, or women to become brain dead objects within life (like you see in many music videos where they are sexualized and objectified and yet they still do the video), I find that some children still see the media as a separate entity. What happens on the media is on the television set, or in the game and a lot of the time they don’t cross it over.

    But when it does get crossed over and the child is not educated on whether that is right or wrong (depending on what ideals and morals they are crossing over from media to their real life), is when it becomes a problem.

    I also believe that sexuality will become ever more apparent when media begins to have trouble coming up with new ideas. We have reality television, gossip television, soap operas and entertainment shows. In all of the above there will be someone or something that has to do or is talking about sex. Sex does indeed sell, and if ideas are slim to none,then we are headed for an even more sexualized world. Because of this, I think even the act of sex (showing affection and love towards someone – the intimacy) is being lost because of the media. So not only are teenagers involving themselves perhaps in more sex, it’s becoming a meaningless action which devalues humankind’s greatest source of intimacy.

    When looking at the core of media, it tries to change the tropes of what it means to be human,or tries to tell you what your sexuality or roles should be and our children need to be educated against this.

    Thank you for the post!

  4. Interesting argument here. From my point of view, kids are innocent creatures, but media keep pushing on their young minds with sex and appereance ideals. I’m not sure that watching TV is safe now for our childrens. Surfing the Internet is equally a minefield and as a parent I have forbidden my 2 teenage daughters to be enganged with any type of social media.

    • As a parent I agree with you – it’s like a minefield out there. The internet and TV. Of course the kids want to keep up with their peers and with the latest craze. However I have chosen a different strategy. I allow my children to consume these things but in an open way which promotes discussion. The computer is a communal area of the house and they know that I look at their phones and supervise their accounts. Not to be overbearing or nosy – they also are entitled to privacy. If they see a music video with girls not wearing much and dancing provocatively instead of banning them from seeing it I ask them what they think. How does it make them feel? How do they think the girl in the video feels? How might other people view that girl? Is that right or wrong? Discussion is the key and the main lesson to teach them is that nowadays the internet never forgets. When we were young if we made a mistake it was bad for a time but generally got forgotten or went away. These days if a photo, or message thread is out there – it’s not going away. That’s a tough lesson for young people to understand. Bottom line is that we need to keep the lines of discussion open. Closing our eyes will not solve the problem and will only make our children do things behind our backs and therefore without our support should something go wrong.

      • Linda, I literally clapped when I read your comment. I am on the exact same page that you are.

        In our house, my husband and I have always been open with our daughter about things that others are uncomfortable with. I admit that there are times when she asks questions that are somewhat embarrassing to answer, but the positive thing with being so open with your kids is this: they will never have to feel like what they are learning at school or on the street is absolute law. They will know that they can come to you about issues.

        Your approach of asking questions about suggestive images and videos is great, and I think I will follow this same route. We do make sure that our daughter doesn’t surf onto any pornographic websites, but it is next to impossible to shield from everything. So, the next time something like this comes up I will simply break the silence by asking, “So what do YOU think of this?”

        Thanks for sharing!

    • I agree, media has such a great impact on kids’ minds. It is also important that parents have a great saying in shaping their childrens’ actions and beliefs.

  5. This is something a girlfriend and I were discussing a few days ago. She was telling me about her nephew coming out and his father passively aggressively blaming his wife for allowing him to consume certain messages. While we both agreed that their child (her nephew) would be gay either way, we did get into a discussion about how media can influence sexuality. I felt that, if anything, it could influence how we express our sexuality with regular and extended exposure. Now, parental influence on what media we consume is an aspect that I hadn’t considered before. I know it’s recommended that parents monitor the media that their children consume (TV, movies, magazines, social media, etc.) to ensure that they aren’t consuming harmful messages. I’d be interested to know what impact do you think parental control (and preferences) of media has on a child’s sexual identity?

  6. I can NEVER conclude whether these statistical data collections or reports are of any use as I have to always come to the conclusion that as humans, we have too many variables for this sort of collective data to be on the ball.
    I have a 65 year old mother in law, who neither grew up with the internet or television and yet tells me how she was promiscuous. That can have no premise on how media influenced her.
    What she does have different to today’s teenagers is that naivety that our young teens no longer have. That simply makes me think that is because this generation is more informed and I don’t ever think being informed is a bad thing.
    As a mother of a 12 year old, I find she is comparative to my 14 year old self comparatively speaking and my 14 year old self was probably comparable with my 30 year old mother so things are speeding up. I am NOT speaking of sexual knowledge or activity there, merely maturity and knowledge.
    Because times have changed, I feel it is of importance to guide my children through the media fueled world we live in. Maybe that is why she is not as interested sexually as some of her peers. We have sat down and actually discussed the implications of how these girls act and what she wants from her future.
    I think a larger part to the issue of increased sexual activity and related issues is that children are more intelligent and informed and when they feel unloved, they immediately use sex as a “go to”. I don’t think well loved and balanced teenagers do this the same as troubled children do.

    • I have to totally agree with Emma on this one. Yes the Media is a minefield out there but we as parents have to step in and be the parents that guide our kids through this field. Emma hits the nail right on the head when she says “I feel it is of importance to guide my children through the media fueled world..”. This is the key.

      If we sit back and expect our kids to figure it out on their own you are in for a big shock. Times have changed and it is not as “secretive” as it was in 1940. Notice how I didn’t say “easy”…because it wasn’t easy in 1940, they had different issues but you still had women giving birth out of wedlock, you just didn’t mention it as forwardly as you do in the year 2014. Times have changed.

  7. I would like to think that with my 4 children, I encourage the academic side of growing up enough that they know it is good to take care of your appearance but not be so vain that you forsake everything else to be beautiful.
    My eldest especially goes to school with girls who whilst not caring about getting excluded from school and losing their education, worry about whether they have drawn their eyebrows on well enough or if they need to sort out their hair extensions…this is as young as 12/13 ( Yes, I could cry!).
    I would say for what I see this influence started off being pushed by “reality shows” and once they created celebrities, parents were on a road to nowhere on pulling their kids back from consumerism.

    I have actually sat both my 12 and 9 year old down and explained consumerism and basically every £5-7 they spend when they are adults, they forsake an hour of their life at work for it. It seems to work as they won’t by rubbish now and think hard if they need something or not before they buy something.

    People need to be more responsible and realize we are raising future adults and also responsible consumers. If we let adverts cause social pressure as children and influence the way they act, dress and behave then we produce adults that fall in to the consumerist trap and that to me is a parenting fail.

  8. As a father of four and as someone who has seen in his profession(I worked in mental health care administration for 10 plus years)the rapidly changing and deteriorating view western culture has of women, I am alarmed. My belief is that a combination of media and peer and parental influence are the mutual causes. Who can deny that we are forcing young women (little girls really) to “grow up” (superficially) too fast? As far as the impact the media has–It is not just the impact that the media has on the girls themselves that creates the problem, it is also the impact that the media has, and has had, on the parents and the other influential adults in the girl’s life. I can’t tell you how many time our eating disorder specialist told me how their young patients started on the path towards their disorder based on the “innocent” comment made by a father, coach or teacher. And why did they make the comment?…because of what the media has told them a girl should look. I have seen “stage moms” push little girls far too hard to appear grown up and to act “grown up” Our kids need the opportunity to be kids first and foremost. I don’t blame all the world’s ills on the media and sometimes the best of parents have the worst of kids, but who can argue the impact the media has had on our culture as a whole? Of course the truly frightening thing is that the very people who are influences by the media are the very ones who need to help correct this negative view of womanhood.

  9. Casey & John make excellent points for an extension of the study. Regarding the element of danger being added (or increased) into the media mix, I agree that a stronger edge of danger is being attached to the idea of females expressing their sexuality. That inherent in this expression of sexuality, is the acceptance of aggression, danger of bodily harm, and misogyny. I am specifically alarmed with the supernatural trend, of sexy vampires and such who give extreme danger to the development of the young star’s sexuality, as well as an idea of immortality. That if one is ‘hurt’ they can be ‘cured’ quickly and their sexuality, their ID or Ego are all intact and ready for the adventures in the next episode. Aside from the sexy dangers of dating super naturals, there are the sexy dangers of dating hiphop stars like Chris Brown. How the media handles domestic abuse between celebrities also dictates how children perceive the adults around them evaluating the same messages. As John says, it’s not just how the children interpret the media’s messages, it’s also how they perceive the adults around them to have interpreted it as well has how the adults react to those messages.

  10. Media has definitely taken impacted our youth of today’s generation. As a teacher of teens, I am CONSTANTLY stunned to hear some of the conversations these kids have with one another. When I was a teen myself, I didn’t know half of what they know today. Shows like, “Gossip Girl”, “Jersey Shore”, and the latest craze, “Orange is the New Black” all have an impact on young kids in general. A lot of parents surprisingly allow their children to watch these shows, which results in an open mind about sexuality. If Snookie is sleeping around with 10 guys a night, why can’t I do it? That’s the mindframe these kids seem to have.

    I don’t see any positive in today’s media, because most shows that interest teens don’t showcase negative results of certain behaviors.

    Teens are extremely impressionable during these important years of their lives. They have a constant need of fitting in and being cool, and they believe that following certain behaviors makes them this way. There are very few artists today that can be considered positive role models. Miley Cyrus, Rhianna, Eminem, etc. The TRUE inspirational artists, sadly, don’t get much publicity due to the fact that drama and sex is what sells. When is the last time you heard a teenage girl say they want to grow up and be just like Taylor Swift or Celine Dion? It doesn’t happen.

    What about the horrifying video games on the market today? These games tend to lean more towards the boys. All of the most popular games on the market today have to do with killing people around you and becoming a hero. What kind of influence is this on young boys? It’s all very maddening. Why can’t there be a popular video game that doesn’t involve shooting someone?

    In a way, parents can also be blamed for this. You can say that a parent should not buy their children these video games or allow their kids to watch these shows/listen to the music. In the same token, there really is no way of preventing it. You can put as many restrictions on your kids as you want, but what stops them from going to a friends house and doing these things? It’s tough.

    I truly hope media improves as time goes on but sadly, I don’t see that to be the case.

  11. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and there was a lot of sexualization on tv back then. Take MTV for example. There have been beautiful scantily clad women in countless music videos for as long as I can remember. I am 33 years old now but I clearly remember in an elementary school assembly being taught that sex sells. I was always an honor student and remember a lot of lessons like that that I have learned throughout my life.

    When I became of age I was very confident and sure of myself so I decided that it was a good idea to work in the adult entertainment industry. I was not ashamed of my body or sexuality and it was a really high paying job. It was actually all the girls in the dressing room of the gentlemen’s clubs calling each other bitches and it wasn’t said in a derogatory way. That’s just the language of that type of environment. If a man at the establishment were to call us that though they were quite likely to get a slap across the face.

    Once being accustomed to this sort of lifestyle for a long while you tend to forget that the outside world is so much different. I had a best friend for life that I called a bitch once and she was very offended and I explained to her that I hadn’t said it to offend her and apologized. I haven’t been in a club for years but I still get weird looks from others when I say certain things on occasion.

    Back in the days of watching shows like Jenny Jones I didn’t understand when the beautiful women that used to have low self-esteem as kids fixed themselves up and found their confidence by making themselves beautiful. A large majority of the people would tear those women apart for the changes they had made in their lives. I always thought it was ridiculous because it was usually the fat ugly people saying these things. Those were the kind of people that probably tore her down when she was young and damaged her self esteem in the first place. A lot of them would say that they are just playing into the male fantasy and that they would be objectified. I believe that a woman’s self confidence has a whole lot to do with that. A strong confident woman doesn’t tend to look at it that way from my experience. It is the girls with low self-esteem that feel that way and society tells us that in general as well. I don’t believe it has to be that way.

    Each generation seems to become more and more sexualized and other countries promote sex much more openly and they seem to usually have a lower rate of violent crimes. I have dressed and behaved in ways that my mother never would have when she was my age or at least she wants me to think so and I am sure she did things that her mother never would have. Now I am older and have kids of my own and I can’t say that I don’t worry about the kinds of things they are being exposed to. Sex is becoming more and more prevalent all the time due to the media and how readily accessible it is.

    I was shocked the last time I went out to the mall. Every other store has lingerie models, lingerie, sex toys, nudity, and adult novelties. My daughter’s are much too young at this point to go anywhere without parents but their father and I are saying that we never want to let them out of our sight again and their dad said they are never allowed to go to the mall. We are constantly watching and monitoring the things they watch on tv, the music they listen to and what they can do on the internet or a phone. These days you can’t be too careful because that kind of stuff is everywhere. The biggest problem I have run into is with my much older son.

    Not a lot of parents seem to pay that much attention to what their kids are getting into and my son learned about obscene things from the other kids at school. I learned many years later that both his father and paternal grandmother would leave him unattended at the computer for long periods of time and he began looking at these things at the age of six years old. It has been since about that age that he has had really severe problems with his self esteem and school and I had no idea why. He would get really angry and scream outrageous sexual things in class. That was a red flag for me right there but my son would never be able to tell me why he felt that way. I assumed that he must have had some sort of trauma that he was unwilling to speak about and his dad’s side of the family were always sweeping things under the rug and hiding his problems from me. It was not until he became a teenager that he was able to tell me about what had been going on for all these years.

    I am still very angry to know that my baby boy’s innocence was taken from him at such a young age due to their negligence. Kids need to be watched and cared for closely by their parents especially when it comes to media. Parents also need to be careful about what they talk about around their children because whether they want to believe it or not they are listening and learning all the time. There are many things that adults do that kids don’t need to know about. The things I have done in my adult life are not for them to know. When they are mature and responsible adults like at least in their 30’s or 40’s maybe I would consider telling them more details about some of the things I’ve done but kids really need the censorship. They are learning and developing their set of values and feelings of competence and self worth. Sexuality is not something they should be exposed to until a mature age. Sex education is a good thing of course but as far as sex and the media is concerned children have no place in that world.

  12. This article is densely packed. There is plenty in each article to keep us busy for weeks. And it isn’t the superficial presentation of “some people say black and others say white,” i.e., the 180-degree poles of every argument, but the varied aspects and nuances of each argument that are brought out in a thoughtful way. I appreciate that.

    I’d like to address rap artists. While the article is true in its assertion that there are many demeaning words and images in rap songs, the medium is maturing and I’m seeing very many encouraging signs from rap. In other words, rap was largely emulating the “gangsta” lifestyle in an effort to impress and outrage its audience. In a similar way, boys in the 50’s used to roll packages of cigarettes up in their short shirt sleeves to look cool (and to keep from bending their cigarettes, of course). So every generation wants to both embrace the values that it learned from parents and other influential adults, and shock those same parents and others by rebelling (to prove onset of independence) and repelling (to gross out the parents). We’re very familiar with the idea that young people must rebel in order to take the wheel from our tired old hands when they are ready, but we ignore what we already know about repelling.

    My 5-year-old nephew likes to use words like “butt fart” and chews with his mouth open in a rudimentary (but very open!) attempt to “gross me out.” It’s very comical when seen for what it is, and I believe that at least some of the outrageous lyrics and visuals in rap music have the same root intent. Kind of like flipping the bird at the uptight people.

    For example, in the Eminem lyrics that you quote, it seems that Eminem is perhaps more interested in grossing out the audience and critics than he is in really slamming a woman to the ground and doing physical damage. The lyrics spell it out: “hope you hear this song / And go into a cardiac arrest, have a heart attack / And just drop dead.” He loves the revenue from all the concerts and record sales, but there’s a part of him that just loves grossing people out.

    I’m not defending people who actually hurt women. But I do understand the tendencies of artists to throw all of society’s ills straight into the spotlight where it ticks everyone off. Every generation has banned artwork because art throws things in our faces that we don’t want to see. But the repulsive art does serve a purpose, in that society (after rejecting the artist) shifts in order to avoid the spotlight that called out those ills.

    Anyway, anyone who has a fight with a cigar-smoking, insult comic dog like Triumph is not worth … well, let’s not even go there.

    Awhile back, I read an article about rap songs that were actually loving and affirming of women. I want to share some of them with you, because the genre has matured to a point where a lot of different voices can make use of it for a variety of purposes. Some of these songs are touching, tender, even uplifting. Some are written by, or performed by, kids.

    As you can see, the movement to utilize rap to make changes in the world is becoming a worldwide phenomenon.


    2Pac praising women:
    Kids rapping to respect everyone:
    Krazie K love song:
    Young kid missing his mother:
    Compilation of 11 Best Rap Love Songs (in one video):


    Anti-rape song:


    Respect women (clever ad for kitchen appliances):

    I’m not saying that some people don’t use rap music (or anything else that comes along) as an excuse to either hate or feel hated. It’s just refreshing to know that tenderness and love can be expressed just as beautifully in rap as they can in other forms of music.

    Again, thank you for a wonderful view into the machinery that creates or reinforces low self-esteem, and into the positive change that the machinery has inspired in response.



    • Andrea,

      I absolutely love your comment here! It was very eye opening to me. You bring up some incredible points because every generation has different ideals. Like you said, teens grow up wanting to create new “traditions” or rebel or to shock etc. It happens in every generation. I completely agree that the media wants everything to look picture perfect, but when people start to “rebel” by showing the truths about the media, it is blocked out or prevented. Media doesn’t want the truth to be heard.

      On another note, I love that 2pac video, I’ve seen it many times and I think that he is one of the artists in our society that tried to reveal the truths about the media, and also tried to go against things that he felt were wrong such as the condemnation of women, by praising them. The music created today that are about making changes are amazing, because hip hop/rap is very popular but a lot of hip hop/rap dates back to harsh words, and talking poorly of women.

      When I hear rap or music that is positive, it is great because music is so popular in culture that if artists simply just changed their lyrics to be more positive, it would change how listeners view certain topics. Such as the anti rape song and respect women really emphasizes that women should be portrayed POSITIVELY in the media, and that can really encourage children from a very young age to be aware of that.


    • Andrea, I’d like to add one to your list (although more hip hop than rap if we’re splitting genre hairs), and bring another layer to the discussion:

      Same Love by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

      Sexual orientation and LGBT rights are still at the fringes of the music industry. The song itself notes that “If I was gay, I would think hip hop hates me” while spreading the broader message of equality and acceptance.

  13. This article covers a great deal of material surrounding the issues of sexual identity formed by what children experience through the media. I’m not sure I agree with all the statements made about media influence, such as an objection I have to the view on popular girl groups existing in the 1990s, and any negative influence they had on developing girls during that time. I feel that they were in fact empowering, rather than detrimental. However I do very much agree with the objection to the objectification and violence towards women in popular modern culture. Hip hop and rap, art forms that were once used to progressively change the way people looked at the world in the 70s and 80s, are now mainstream forms of media that are used to empower men through the exploitation of women. I also agree with the article’s objection to the influence of celebrities that have “transformed into women”; female child stars that now exploit themselves and party hard to prove their transition into women-hood. These stars are responsible for a set example of how to grow into the challenging years of womanhood, and they are failing this task by giving young girls distorted messages on how to do this while retaining dignity and autonomy as a person. As a parent I believe it’s very challenging to combat these influences. As the article stated, the parents who are more strict on the subjects of sex and limitations on media exposure are the ones who have children that are more likely to rebel against the enforced rules and become increasingly sexual. Here is something the article didn’t fully cover, we need to talk about whether being sexual at a younger age is what needs to be avoided, or whether it just needs to be understood. It seems, unfortunately, unavoidable, and I think that makes parents and schools more responsible for teaching about healthier sexual relationships beginning at younger ages. Children will, no matter what, be exposed to sex beginning earlier in their lives, and as a result there needs to be more discussion about how to handle this in a healthy and mature way. So rather than trying to keep kids from seeing sex in the media, which we know is impossible, we need to educate kids on how to maintain their values, autonomy and personal standards when confronted with all the difficult adult sexual issues that they will see so much earlier in their lives. Parents need to come to grips with the reality of this exposure, and not blame kids for their involvement in a system that has billions of dollars invested in the exploitation of children and preteens. This means talking to kids in a more adult way. Like this article states, children already have a growing knowledge of the ways in which they are being used through dating and media exploitation. So it is our responsibility to talk to them, and help them through these issues. That is how we can create a healthier generation of young men and women.

  14. No wonder so many girls grow up and turn into women with shopping issues, these advertising companies are targeting the girls left and right since they were born… there are some inspiring messages attached like the always campaign and i wish there were more like that to boost self esteem instead of breaking it down… it took me a long time to break my impulse shopping habits, it was really tough because it was embedded in my subconscious that i have to buy clothing and that makes me a better person, the more variety the greater i become as a woman… but its an illusion, it was really tough, but I did it, your blog will help many people in my situation!! and I wish I had subscribed when I was a teenager, awareness is key and you are creating awareness with your messages!!

  15. The way the media portrays children and young adults really disgusts me! I see show after show coming out glamorizing the smut that they think the people want and it all seems the same! The sad truth is, the consumers and the television watchers don’t really know what they want. They just watch what the media tells them to and most of them don’t know any better. This kind of response filters down to my children, your children and every child within earshot of these shows or the very revealing ad spots for them. When is it going to stop? I don’t know, but I have been asking myself this for many years and am almost ready to give up on television and the media who is “just looking out for our own good!

  16. As a teenager in the 80s as well, I remember the message of “being anything you wanted to be” and that you could have it all, do it all (which is exhausting by the way). If women were to be a success in the corporate world, they had to act like men and dress like them (I remember power suits and big shoulder pads, even ties). When the 90s came around I felt confused and the new sexualised power invoked a perpetual eye roll in me, and still does. Today I embrace both stereotypical “feminine” and “masculine” sides and rebel when someone or something tries to dictate otherwise.

    But I also struggle with this, because on one hand I am bothered by the Paris Hiltons who use their sexuality as a power trick, yet on the other hand, I think it is wrong when people in our society engage in “slut shaming.” I had a big problem with Miley Cyrus and people would challenge me with, “it was the same thing when we had Madonna in the 80s.” I suddenly felt old and unsure. Was it the same? In the final analysis I don’t think so. For starters, Madonna didn’t grow up before our eyes. She wasn’t a child performer who garnered a following of little girls and then sexualised them overnight. Are we just due for another wave of feminism? Haha.

  17. Brilliant research, Francesca, and you are spot on about children needing a voice. I have four children of various ages, and gender and sexuality is discussed openly in my home, and this has worked well for them, I believe. They seem to be able to cope better with societal pressure when they are heard at home, in a safe environment and that they aren’t alone in their experiences. I think when their beliefs are reinforced at home and they can bounce off outside pressures, children have more confidence in their decision-making.

  18. I definitely felt the pressure to look or act a certain way growing up. My frustration though was that the way girls were supposed to look was SO SPECIFIC that nobody really fit it. Apparently we were all supposed to be super thin but then somehow have these incredible curves as well. Well… it doesn’t work that way. So my curvy friends felt fat and my thin friends felt flat and unfeminine and we all felt ugly.

    • Hannah, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Did you also find Prof. Gauntlett’s findings a call to action? Let me tell you why I’m so concerned. I’m a single mother from the Midwest who is bringing up a girl who like I was is being negatively affected by these subconscious messages. I’m a small town American girl who got herself through college, have been battling what I now see as a male dominated, chauvinistic culture for over 20 years… and walked blindly through the traps until one day, when I was 21 at college, I developed anorexia. THAT was the turning point, and yes, I relate my condition (and beating it with my mom’s help) directly to the male suppression of women and the horrible pressure to “look like barbie does”.

  19. I did not realise that there was such a gap in gender until I grew up and entered the workforce. I had a strong mother who worked (and earned more than my father) and in my house my father and mother carried the domestic burdens equally. This is why music video’s concern me so much. Rap is misogynistic by nature, but mainstream pop music is equally as distressing for the parents of both sexes of children growing up around these influences. Both male and female artists seem to sing about the same things.

    Music artists such as Nikki Minaj who makes money by baring her large buttocks and imitating sex in her video clips. Our children are listening to these songs and acting them out. Young girls ‘twerking’ on videos that go viral. Here in Australia this has become normalised. A little girl in my sons class (second grade) showed all the boys her vagina and anus. This is worrying on so many levels. Children calling each other sexy and singing along with that song that goes ‘I’m sexy and I know it’ is completely horrifying. Upon asking my child what sexy means he conceded that he didn’t know but he was only singing the song. Kylie Minogue singing a song called ‘sexercise’.. really Kylie? That’s all you have got?

    Heavy metal seems to be one of the only genres that does’t really concern itself with a sexy image to sell the music.

  20. There is no doubt about the fact that the media has reached new heights of displaying vulgarity and inappropriate content without filtering any adult content. Everything seems to be effected by this new concept of ‘modernization’ where vulgarity is socially being accepted. This is such an alarming situation because things are getting out of hands. Little kids are at a huge risk of committing inappropriate behavior just because they ”see it on the TV”. Even in a country like Pakistan, where the religion has a huge impact on people’s life, a general acceptance is seen people who claim to be broad minded as they feel that the explicit content is ”no biggie”. This is a problem because children are not only losing innocence, but there is an increase amount of sexual activities in them, which is just plain wrong.
    Being said that, the entire responsibility cannot be put of the media alone. Parents too are responsible for this. I know that even after being 20 years old, I cannot talk to my parents about my boyfriend because not only does my society doesn’t accept it as a norm, my parents too have a strict hold on our activities.

  21. Alee I agree with you that vulgar displays in the media and in music influences the children. Girls as young as 3 and 4 getting the message that the only thing they have going for them is their bodies is very sad. It gives girls a sense of hopelessness with little to look forward to. Add to that a poor maternal role model and there could possibly be a recipe for disaster. I often wonder about the girl who flashed the boys in the 2nd grade class, I wonder what her female role model is like? What has she seen that made her think it was ok to do that? I have told my son not to go near her anymore and he was just as shocked as I was about it. This is also true for the latest wave of females who display ‘I don’t need feminism’ signs on the Internet. Is it because they don’t know what feminism is or that they have been shown by the media and popular culture that they should not strive to be equal?
    I do not envy young girls growing up these days. They may have to fight for their equal rights again after becoming complacent for so long!

  22. This was a well written and carefully researched article, and I hope the message gets out to a large audience. I have to agree with many of the commenters who say people need to be more responsible when raising their children. You can’t just plunk them in front of the T.V. when you need a babysitter. Think about it, would you have a real babysitter come to your home and talk to your children about sex, portray harmful stereotypes about gender and race, and use fowl language? Of course not! But that’s exactly the kind of input they get from television.
    My children are grown now, but the one thing I wish I could change about the way I raised them was the amount of time I let them spend with this bad companion – the television. Until we are able to regulate the media messages our children are bombarded with we need to be more diligent in protecting them!

  23. “Regardless of one’s personal opinions on the level of pleasure vs. danger brought about by the media’s purported “sexualisation” of childhood, it should be agreed upon that children deserve a voice and a choice in these matters, one that is not drowned out exclusively by adult concerns or clouded by moral judgments. I personally believe that one effective way to foster agency in young people is to ensure that it is given to them before they have succumbed to the pressure to be “sexy” within the narrow parameters presented as acceptable by our heteronormative society.”

    I gotta say that this last paragraph redeemed the whole article for me. I got lost in your point and was confused about what you were hoping to convey.

    I actually think that American parents welcome sex on television to a certain extent because it gives them something to build a conversation around. Parents can say “this is acceptable sexual engagement” and “this is not acceptable sexual engagement” so that children know what healthy sexuality looks like. Sex on television allows children to explore the thoughts that are already in their minds. I think I read somewhere that children began to recognize their gender when they are five and by the time they are 6 or 7 they are aware of their sexuality as it relates to people of the opposite sex. I think academia is notorious for marginalizing the minds and experiences of children. I think academia has more influence on media than most people recognize and more than it would like to admit. These studies and statistics do not come to exist out of a vacuum. They come to exist because markets and industries want to know who and what they are dealing with when it comes to consumers.

  24. I was a very busy parent and suddenly, I started noticing change in my child’s behavior. I was really worried and came across your blog.The posts here are really interesting and also gave me a solution, on how I can be a responsible mother as well as continue my profession. It is not possible to live without media and it is important for our children too, but there are many side effects and I was really worried about my older kid. Children are not children anymore and they learn lots of good and bad things. After reading your article I spend lots of time with my son and try to make him stay away from all the stuff that we see on TV. Thanks a lot.

  25. I myself have never thought of the media sexualizing children was a problem. I thought the problem was more in the media promoting unhealthy body images among teen girls, but this article was eye opening. It seems to me that when girls are young, they see ads and feel pressured to grow up and be sexy. In order to do this, they want to be beautiful and thus focus on the other ads which promote the unhealthy body image. I think now that it’s a linear path for girls, starting when they are very young and just worsening through the years.

  26. I am glad to see people posting about this. The media has screwed up so many children it is sick. I was one. The shows, music, and the ways my friends acted… It all had me believing I should be ashamed for not having sex or a boyfriend. So like a lot of other teen girls, I sold myself short. Looking back now, I wish I knew what was wrong with all of that. I met the man of my dreams and I just feel crappy for not being a virgin for him. It is funny, when we are young, being a virgin is viewed as awful and bad but then in your mid 20’s… Being a female AND a virgin is an amazing find for a man. I wonder what happened there?

  27. In the media, everything is sexualized. It’s literally everywhere. You can watch almost any show and it will be sexualized in some way. An example of this are shows like American Idol, which are supposed to be focused on the talent, but there is always girls who are dressed in heavy makeup and revealing clothes. While dressing that way is perfectly okay generally, it’s not okay to present women as sexual objects, especially on a show that is supposed to be about their talents. We have these young girls being told that “girl power” is being controlled by men but acting like you aren’t. Your Spice Girls example was completely true. Society needs to be shown that you can not sexualize girls and not slut shame them, either. There is an in between. We need to be shown that girls are more tan sex objects, but they also don’t need to be perfect virgins, either. A girl can have a lot of sex, or none at all, and either way, it’s perfectly okay. Sex doesn’t define a girl, and the media needs to show that.

  28. I remember being called names or worse, being actually slapped for not listening or knowing Boys bands or the Spice Girls. I was 12 years old and I was listening to 60’s classic rock (my parents’ music) and classical music. I had no Internet at home and no cellphones, but already, I was considered a prude for not talking about boys, being interested in or wanting to date a boy. I remembered a girl 2 years older than me (so 14) telling me how stupid I was not to use my big boobs (I was already a B cups) boys!
    I’m telling you that because growing up, I wasn’t allowed to watch much TV (only once a week for Dr. Quinn or Lois & Clark), we got Internet when I was 15 years old, and my first cellphone at 16, etc. and I had a normal childhood. But it seems like I was a bit of an exception. Media wouldn’t have such a big impact on kids today if parents were talking and discussing with their kids, instead of relying on school to do it, but most of all, if they wouldn’t give every access and allow their kids to be on social media before they are allowed or proven to be able to handle, and with a lot of restrictions.
    Protecting our kids from subjects they shouldn’t even know about is important. And when they do, deal with it by talking it through with them…

  29. Since being an adult, I have noticed the sexual references in so many “kid” or “family” movies, shows, and even books. It’s really crazy that though at a younger age I didn’t understand the references, but I still watched that scene, heard those words, and even read that paragraph. The PG now-a-days are allowed to have curse words, and a few minor sexual references…like a kiss here, and a caress there. Even the clothing that some of the “princess” movies wear are revealing and teach our children that you should dress and look like this to get a prince.

    Not only movies, but video games. I was recently with my husband at a game store and witness a parent and their child buying Laura Croft and an older version of Grand Theft Auto…which one was the child holding? The Grand Theft Auto. I have seen those games played, though Laura Croft is more on the mild side, the clothing is still revealing. Yet the Grand Theft, had no business being in the hands of a child. However, it seems to becoming the “norm” for children to play those types of games even alone, which leads into exploring online games, chat rooms, and then more explicit content. I can honestly speak from experience there. I was in high school when online games became popular, and I myself explored IMVU and SecondLife. Yes some of it can be appropriate and there are restrictions, but you do end up being exposed to the clothing, to the poses, and other things that you can buy from the game’s store.

    Definitely need a lot more restrictions and censoring in my opinion, and hopefully one day there will be.

  30. I’ve always wanted my kids to have the freedom to make their own choices just like what you mentioned in the last part of your article. Still, I don’t disregard the dangers of this practice because there’s a tendency for them to think differently without the supervision of their parents which develops a rebellious personality. I know they will experience that but I still think it’s better for us parents to impose a little control over our kids.

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