Society has recently been confronted with the phenomena of “Sexting” which is one further manifestation of the increasing sexualisation and earlier loss of childhood in our children. It is an accepted psychological truth that a person’s early years, if they are good, sustain a person throughout their life, just as a bad childhood damages them.
Nothing is more vulnerable than childhood and it’s never been more under threat. The trend in our society is that the experiences which nourish and help shape children into their adult lives are now being compressed into an ever dwindling window of time, and where childhood is being devalued so much that many parents seem increasingly restless to get their children’s childhood over as quickly as possible.
Psychiatrists define sexualisation of children as the imposition of adult models of sexuality on children and adolescents, and categorically state it creates psychological harm to children. They note the implied or explicit linking of self-worth with popularity in terms of sexual attractiveness, with a negative impact on self-esteem.
Parents, mass media marketing, peer pressure , single parent and double income family systems, are all propelling our children into premature adolescence as if innocence, magical thinking, wonder and make-believe are detrimental and should be replaced with “the realities of life” as soon as is possible.
Studies of children have confirmed that many children feel pressure to grow up too quickly and to dress, act and behave as “mini-adults”, often to impress parents, or have parents impress friends by parading them out like Barbie dolls or spunky, cool little dudes.
Social commentators now refer to the emergence of a “raunch culture” which pressures girls to have sex early and against their will. Studies of Generation Y by respected researchers such as La Trobe University Sociologist Anastasia Powell reveal trends of sexualized imagery in media, music and popular culture taking its toll on the young.
The increased amount of sexually educating information did not overturn conflicting messages about women being branded as “sluts” or “frigid” depending on their sexual attitudes and orientations. Women are being pressured into sex at earlier ages, with oral sex being what kissing was 20 years ago, and the notion of anal sex now being normalized as a standard practice.
Boys and men are encouraged by the same imagery to adopt aggressive roles in sex with women, to degrade and objectify them. A 2008 Australian Latrobe University investigation of 00 year 10 and year 12 school age students from across 100 public and private schools, found that 38 per cent of female respondents having had unwanted sex, from a total pool of 40 per cent who replied they have had sex at all.
Also over per cent had not used a condom, over per cent have had oral sex with more than 3 partners in the last year. Television and media are now directly shaping children’s reality through children’s and teenage shows, where marketing of products is included along with portrayal of the key characters as mini-adults, who role model for children how they should dress, act, think, behave and speak.
The degree of sexualisation of the dolls and the actresses is disturbing yet we face a time when Hollywood, business and Media distributors are largely acting under self regulation. Sexualised products appearing on the market for children include padded bras, G-Strings, high heel shoes, pole-dancing kits, babies T-shirts with sexualized messages.
The children are often too young to understand the sexualized nature of the product, and often it is a sexualized or narcissistic parent wanting attention for themselves, who creates a “show pony” effect on their children, and effectively use the children to prop up their own low self esteem or egos. Retailers of such products defy challenge of their “right” to market such products, saying it is just “fun” or not to be taken seriously.
They dismiss the notion that such merchandise creates a normalization of a sexualized image in children, yet admit they have no psychological training or evidence to back-up or make such statements. In effect it is a lack of accountability to the consumer as regulations are geared to more tangible and physical safety and other guidelines, and only public outcry is having a change of heart on behalf of exposed, named and shamed retailers who sell such products.
The attack on childhood is never more constant, pushing the boundaries, or chasing new childhood markets, than ever before. Society is increasingly buying into this trend with a new generation of businesses now springing up to cater for children to go to Day Spas, Limousines and $1000 dresses to the teenage school balls, fashion parades, and adult theme experiences recreated for children as young as 5 years old and older.
Young teen women are presented with such sexualized adult role models as Kim Kardishan, Lady GaGa, Beyonce and Katy Perry from which to align their emerging sense of selves. Under peer pressure they are forced to conform to obtain acceptance from boys who also adopt the same sexualized expectations of girls from these same women role models.
At the same time these young women also attract attention from older men who are able to exploit their innocence. Older predatory men often display a confidence and sophistication with their more assured and confident natures, which can manipulate without the girl knowing how, or being able to give any real consent.
In films such as Shrek we now get two parallel lines of entertainment, where there is the child level, but innuendos, jokes, depictions of adult themes such as sex, jealousy, revenge, ambition, desire, winning at all costs. In many childhood and teen programmes we are being bombarded with the notions and images of children having intimate partners or relationships, troubles with boyfriends or girlfriends, concerns over appearance, popularity and desirability.
Life is no longer portrayed as stable, safe and full of wonder. Instead it is complicated, drama fuelled, dog-eat-dog, and complicated. The net result is an increasing loss of innocence, childhood, and an upturn in premature adult concerns, awareness, and anxieties over their appearance, place in the world, popularity, body image, sex, and relationships.
Unfortunately now in therapy we are seeing as a result more teenage and early twenty something people who have lost their innocence early, who are street wise, have tried it all by age 18, and are jaded, burnt out, depressed, disillusioned, lost, and have no reason why they feel this way.
Parents are increasingly abandoning their own responsibilities to be effective guides and role models for children, and instead without question, abandoning their children in front of televisions, computer screens and other media where the new role models are questionable, unaccountable, and frighteningly absorbed into the unconscious of any exposed child.
We as a society are increasingly abandoning our responsibility to our children about how to be children, we are increasingly asking our children to act like adults, but we then do not later teach them how to live, behave and be adults. Childhood is the only safe psychological foundation and process for children to experience if they are to become secure and healthy adults.
The old saying that the person who grows up too soon spends the rest of their life as a child is full of wisdom. Parents cannot afford to adopt a victim stance and say it is all too hard or not their fault. Parents have the main responsibility in taking an active role in providing a measured and balanced view of the children’s self-worth, self-image, and the creation of healthy self-esteem where they can critically challenge the sexualized messages streaming through society.
Parents need to start from early childhood in this regard, filtering content they expose their children to, and constantly creating appropriate images and messages for their children. In particular, fathers are crucial in shaping their daughters emerging sexuality via their messages and support.
In therapy we now find the absent effect of parenting in this way, with the appearance of psychological children in adult’s bodies, unsure of themselves, and acting from impulsiveness, having tantrums at their failure to adapt to adult world expectations of them. These infantilized adults have also been products of the “self esteem movement” which started in the 1970’s falsely raised their expectations of adult life and monstrously inflated their egos and self image.
We are now seeing generation X and Y adults obsessed with material wealth and physical appearance, and unable to cope when they fall short of both. The replacement dreams that the replacement media role-models gave them growing up are not playing out according to plan.
Many of these people were fed New-Age mantras such as “You are a god”, “Realise your unlimited potential”, and “Manifest anything you want”, and now are finding out their dreams are crushed, their expectations were false, and they have not been given the internalized tools for adapting and coping with the world as it really is.
This disillusioned generation is angry, and now experiencing higher rates of Depression, Anxiety, Drug and alcohol addictions, and anti-social behaviours. Suicide rates are rising in this affected 18-29 age group and there is entrenched hopelessness, pessimism and a sense of being lost.
Whether you or someone you know is struggling with life as a consequence of your childhood years, help is now available from IBMP counsellors and psychologists with experience in this area.