Is childhood becoming oversexed?

With their made-up eyes, pouty lips and short skirts, these girls look like real party dolls.
In fact, they are dolls. They're the Bratz, the 10-inch “girls with a passion for fashion” whose skyrocketing popularity among young girls has ignited a marketing war with Barbie, the long-reigning queen of the fashion doll world. Compared with the flirtatious-looking Bratz, Barbie looks like the scrub-cheeked — albeit curvaceous — girl-next-door.
As thousands of girls dump Barbie for the Bratz, child development experts worry. They see the Bratz as the cutting edge of a worrisome trend: the increasing use of sexual imagery in products marketed to young children.
They call it the “sexualization of childhood” and point to other examples: thong underwear emblazoned with sexually suggestive phrases for 6-year-old girls; “pimp” Halloween costumes for little boys; the increasingly sexually explicit content of TV shows, movies, and music CDs.

Some products, like the Bratz dolls, are specifically aimed at children. Others are marketed to teens but attract younger children.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation report showed that most American children age 8 and above have TVs in their bedrooms and no parental rules about what they watch. Among the top 15 TV shows with children age 2 to 11 are “American Idol,” “Survivor” and “Desperate Housewives,” according to recent A.C. Nielsen statistics reported in the Orlando (Fla.,) Sentinel.
Child development experts worry that such a sex-saturated culture encourages children and young adults to define themselves mainly by how sexy they are, and to see sex as the most important quality in a successful relationship.
“It's not the fact that children are learning about sex when they are young that is a problem. The problem is what today's sexualized environment is teaching them,” said Diane Levin, a Wheelock College child development professor.
That environment, she said, is undermining normal sexual development and promoting precocious sexual behavior, such as the apparently increasing popularity of oral sex.

“It doesn't bode well for the future of intimate and caring relationships in which sex is a part when today's children grow up,” said Levin, whose essay, “So Sexy, So Soon,” is included in the newly published. “Childhood Lost: How American Culture Is Failing Our Children,” edited by Point Park College psychology professor Sharna Olfman.
Marketers, however, contend that today's kids are growing up in a different world than their parents did and are savvier at younger ages. Some also complain that adults read too much into products that kids see merely as “fashion forward” or “cool.” They point to government data showing a decline in teen pregnancies and an increase in the number of kids who wait longer to have sexual intercourse for the first time.

Ultimately, marketers say, it's up to parents to decide what their children buy and watch.

“That's what parents are for — they can't duck that responsibility,” said Daniel Jaffe, executive director of the Association of National Advertisers, a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents major advertisers. “My own view is that this is the most important thing that parents can do for their kids — setting limits. Kids are looking for parents to tell them what is right and what is wrong.”
Child development experts counter that this often is an impossible task for parents when they are up against companies that spend more than $15 billion a year on marketing to children. That figure includes more than just sex-linked products, of course, but it helps highlight the challenge, the experts say.
“People have been making money off this for a long time, but I think it is getting worse,” said Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a Cornell University professor and author of “The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls.”
Jean Kilbourne, a visiting research scholar at the Wellesley College Centers for Women and author of “Can't Buy Me Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel,” said “children are sexual beings. But in an ideal world they grow into their sexuality gradually, and in an age-appropriate way. Now, there is so much pressure on them at a young age to model an adult version of sex that is way beyond their comprehension.”

Vicky Rideout, a Kaiser Family Foundation vice president who heads the group's study of entertainment media and health, said “kids are just consuming huge amounts of media. ... As part of that, they watch a lot of TV, video and movies that aren't intended for their age and, in the process, pick up a lot of messages.”
Many parents don't believe it, but focus groups that Kaiser recently did with “tweens” — children age 8 to 12 — showed a “50-50 split,” Rideout said. “For some of these kids, it's going right over their heads. But others are picking up on every single thing.”
Gary Cross, a Penn State University modern history professor and author of “The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children's Culture,” said children always have liked to emulate older kids or grown-ups. And “being more grown-up in a society that is highly sexualized means being sexual,” he said.
Jim Silver, editor of “Toy Wishes” magazine and a veteran observer of the toy and children's entertainment scene, said it was the popularity of pop singer Britney Spears that inspired toys like the Bratz dolls and clothes like the navel-showing “belly” shirts.

“It's the Britney-izing of America,” Silver said. “People don't realize how big she really was five years ago.”
Many parents, however, can attest to the persistent cultural power of Spears and other sexy pop stars like the Spice Girls, Levin said. A woman recently told Levin the story of how her 4-year-old granddaughter began gyrating and singing the song “Let Me Be Your Lover” when a shoe salesman asked what was her favorite Spice Girls song.
The ubiquitous nature of sexual imagery and content has “de-sensitized parents” to its impact on children, who don't understand much of it and sometimes even find it scary, Levin said. Parents “have come to accept such sexualized content as Britney Spears, Bratz dolls and professional wrestling females as a regular part of even young children's environment.”
Issac Larian, president of MGA Entertainment, which makes the Bratz dolls, contends that child development experts have got it wrong.
“Unfortunately, it is the polluted mind of some adults who 'see sex' in everything. If you ask the kids (and we have) what do they think of Bratz, they will tell you they are beautiful, inspirational and multiethnic,” Larian said.

“Bratz dolls show the society and the girls and their parents the positive messages of: 'It's O.K. to be multicultural and multiethnic in this world' and 'it's O.K. to be able to express yourself and have self-confidence as a girl.' ”
Sean Pillot de Chenecey, an international marketing consultant, believes some marketers have gone too far and are risking a backlash from parents. “Last year, there was outrage in the U.K. over thongs for 10-year-olds being sold with an image of a cherry and the words 'Eat me' on the front,” he said. “You couldn't make this stuff up, it's so unbelievable.”
Daniel Acuff, a veteran youth marketing consultant, agreed that “there is a backlash in the offing” and that marketers must take responsibility for pushing products that are too sexy, violent or unhealthy for children.
Acuff, the co-author (with Robert Reiher) of the about-to-be-published book, “Kidnapped! How Irresponsible Marketers Are Stealing the Minds of Your Children,” said parents need to get involved and understand that marketers are bottom-line driven.
“A lot of the marketers are young themselves, and don't really have the values perspective that is needed,” Acuff said. “Raising health children truly 'takes a village,' with everyone playing their part.”

Karen MacPherson
8 May 2005

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