Are children growing up too fast
As a new UK survey shows the majority of parents think children are growing up too fast, Lisa Salmon looks at what parents and schools can do to prevent 'sexploitation'
The modern world is forcing children to grow up too fast, the majority of parents believe.
Many fear that the innocence of childhood is in danger of becoming a distant memory, as celebrity culture, adult-style clothes and music videos encourage children to act older than they are.
The independent Bailey Review of Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood, commissioned by the Department for Education, has just published a survey which found that 88pc of parents of five- to 16-year-olds believe children are under pressure to grow up too quickly.
It also found that nearly half of parents are unhappy with programmes or adverts on TV before the 9pm watershed.
Specific areas of parental concern were that clothes weren't age appropriate, and there was increasingly sexualised content in music videos and pre-watershed TV, which has 'too adult' themes in some soap operas.
Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mothers' Union, is leading the review, which will be published in full in May.
He says: "Parents are telling us in no uncertain terms that they are worried about the pressures on children to grow up too quickly.
"It is clear that their concerns have not been created out of a moral panic but from their everyday experience.
"They are struggling against the slow creep of an increasingly commercial and sexualised culture and behaviour, which they say prevents them from parenting the way they want."
The review is exploring whether there should be restrictions on retailers selling sexualised products aimed at children, or a code of conduct on age appropriate marketing, and a new watchdog.
In addition, helping children understand marketing through lessons at school could be an important step towards limiting damage caused by sexualisation and commercialisation, says Jeremy Todd, chief executive of the family support charity Family Lives.
He confirms that early sexualisation is something that "deeply worries" parents who contact the charity, and suggests media literacy woven in to the school curriculum in maths, drama or English lessons as one way forward.
"Many parents feel that their child is more media and computer literate than they are, but certainly in young children evidence shows that many can't tell the difference between an advert on television and the main programme," he says.
"We would like to see children taught media literacy in schools, as understanding advertising and the motivations of those trying to sell products would help children to make more informed decisions and better interpret what they're seeing and hearing."
In the meantime, parents should take action themselves, says Melinda Tankard Reist, author and founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation.
She suggests that parents should decide not to buy into the sexualisation culture, by withdrawing their money from shops and companies which engage in sexualising campaigns to sell products, or which target children with sexualised clothing and products.
She stresses: "If enough parents did this, companies would get the message."
Tankard Reist warns that corporations, advertisers and marketers are commodifying childhood and "taking childhood out of children", and points out that the sexualisation of children has been linked to a range of negative physical and psychological health outcomes.
She advises parents to fight back by helping children to see their worth as more than their physical appearance, praising them for gifts and traits which don't involve looks.
They should also let regulatory bodies and governments know how they feel about practices which are harming their children, and demand more be done to address it.
She adds: "Parents are finding it almost impossible to raise happy, healthy, resilient children in a culture which treats them as mini-adults."
Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust, says children's exposure to sexual language and images from an early age is having a desensitising effect, encouraging them to view sexual intimacy as something coarse and common.
"As a result of this," he says, "they are more vulnerable to pressures to engage in casual sexual relationships when they grow older, with all the attendant risks."
Wells insists demands that children should have the same rights as adults are contributing to a "crisis of identity" among parents, where they are no longer sure about their role.
He points out that children's natural inhibitions about sex are healthy, and provide a necessary safeguard against both sexual abuse and casual sexual attitudes.
"Parents need to be bold and have the courage of their convictions to guide their children and protect their natural sense of reserve," he stresses.
"They should have no qualms about controlling their children's exposure to inappropriate material and not be afraid of saying no to things that aren't in their best interests."