There is no question that the pervasiveness of the media affects us all—regardless of age, race, and privilege—but the question of how much it impacts the developing brain of a child—particularly when it comes to their emotional and sexual development—and what the long-term consequences of this might be, is such a diverse and complex area of study that definitive conclusions have yet to be drawn. Millions of children are being subjected to marketing-driven media every day, much of it containing sexual overtones, whilst we look on with no real knowledge of how this will affect them ten, twenty, or thirty years down the road. Are we affecting our children’s self-esteem and their ability to be healthily intimate one day, merely for the sake of profit?
Several countries now ban advertising to children altogether in an effort to control the media; Sweden, Norway, Greece, and the Canadian province of Quebec have all instituted a ban on advertising to children under twelve in any way, shape or form, and a rising chorus of voices in the UK is calling for a similar ban. A recent petition letter (leaveourkidsalone.org), which was circulated by Jonathan Kent, writer and broadcaster, and Rupert Read, reader in philosophy at the University of East Anglia and chairman of Green House think tank —and subsequently signed by more than 50 authors, journalists, renowned academics, and leading childcare experts— implicates marketing to youngsters in a host of national ills, such as high rates of teenage pregnancy and underage drinking. Among other things, the aggressively sexual subtext in advertisements is seen as a powerful and insidious encouragement to engage in destructive and risky behaviours—an alluring voice that infiltrates the media to make partying and having sex seem “cool” to innocent young minds.
The letter claims that such marketing is “Designed to manipulate adult emotions and desires onto children as young as two or three”, a strong nod to the adult themes, such as sexuality, that are present in many advertisements. The letter also claims that marketing to youth, on the whole, makes them “harder to control” by turning them into little adults who demand what they want, when they want it, and aren’t afraid to express themselves verbally, physically, or sexually.
On the other hand, critics depict this move as a moral panic and argue that the commercial interests behind broadcasting aimed at children would make problematic, if not entirely unfeasible, a total ban on advertising to kids: a measure which would undoubtedly shake the whole foundations of children programming. One can easily imagine how the main stakeholders holding strong financial interests on the outcome of this debate – broadcasters and children products industries – are lobbying to make their voices heard.
Like in any important socio-economic issue there is always a political side to it. The issue of KGOY (acronym used for “kids growing older younger”) is often attributed to the increasingly strong influence of media on children’s mind, but I agree with Jackson (2006:251) that this line of thinking is not necessarily helpful to young people as they are based on notions of childhood as innocent and powerless, rather than acknowledging or seeking to increase children’s abilities to understand their world (for example, by enhancing their critical skills through media literacy interventions). Critical observers have questioned whether these experts truly seek to restore children’s agency and protect their ‘innocence’, or whether they seek to limit their free will and access to media in an effort to control social problems that would be better addressed by the government, for example by providing more useful and thorough social welfare programs (all of which are presently facing a decline in the UK).
Said need for critical examination is especially evident when one considers that in Canadian provinces like Ontario, where advertising to children under twelve is perfectly legal (and the media is, overall, little different to what it is in the UK), the rates of issues supposedly tied to early sexualisation—such as teenage pregnancy—remain relatively low (as do abortion rates, despite Canada’s notable lack of restrictions on abortion). And yet, across the border in the United States, where much of Ontario’s consumed media originates from, issues like teenage pregnancy are much more prevalent. When one weighs this information, the clear link between the media, early exposure to sexual content, and the “too much, too soon”social ills suggested by the team of English experts grows more tremulous.
This does not mean, however, that concern about the impacts of marketing and the media on children’s developing sexuality is mere moral panic, and nothing more. Statistics, at the end of the day, tell us little about the actual people behind them, and there is no denying that across the western world, overt sexuality is being displayed by young people—particularly young women—more often, more blatantly, and earlier on that at any other time over the past century (and perhaps much longer).
The issue of whether or not these young women have knowledge about and access to birth control (and the right socio-economic reasons to use it) tells us nothing of the emotional consequences they may be suffering as a result of possibly premature sexualisation and self-objectification. How do they feel about themselves? Is their body image suffering under the pressure of increasingly unrealistic beauty standards portrayed in the media and in the effort to be sexually appealing? Are young girls too willing to be intimate with any man that desires them, having been taught that they are simply objects for this desire? Are they able to be properly intimate with young men who have also been raised in today’s culture? Or, conversely, are young women finally being taught that female sexuality is not a ‘sin’, a dirty secret, but rather something to be reclaimed and expressed while also striving towards a successful career? Is ‘girls power’, as a feminist-inspired discourse absorbed by popular culture and challenging the idealisation of girlhood in our culture as repository of purity (based on the rhetoric of girls’ vulnerability and need for protection), leading to increased girls’ self-determination and agency?
In short, are we creating something revolutionary—acceptance of the sexual agency of young women —or are we setting girls up to be passive targets of exploitation, while pushing young men to aggressively exploit?
These are the main questions of the “pleasure vs danger” debate, which I will address in my next blog post. So far, I have tried to adopt a sitting-on-the-fence stance in the attempt to present more objectively the different sides of the argument. In a third article I will also be keen to clarify my own position on these issues. In the meantime, I am asking my readers to chime in and let me know their own perspective on things. 😉
Main References 1. Jackson, Carolyn (2006). "Wild" girls? An exploration of "ladette" cultures in secondary schools, Gender and Education, Vol.18 (4): 339-360 2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9984366/Ban-advertising-aimed-at-primary-school-children.html 3. http://www.economist.com/node/4649 4. Currie D, Kelly D M, Pomerantz S (2009) Girl Power': Girls Reinventing Girlhood. Peter Lang Publ.