The increasing prevalence of sexualised images of children and early adolescents in all forms of media has caused widespread concern among the Australian public. Through the following initiatives, the APS has contributed to the debate, arguing that we urgently need to develop strategies to prevent or reduce the amount of sexualisation of children that occurs, and to ameliorate its effects.

Government lobbying

The APS worked with Senator Lyn Allison and the Australian Democrats to bring a Notice of Motion to the Senate asking the Government to establish an expert advisory group to inquire into the effects of the sexualisation of children by the media in Australia. The APS lobbied Senators and participated in a press conference at Parliament House together with Senator Allison. The final Motion, which received bipartisan support in the Senate in August 2007, noted the harmful effects of the sexualisation of children, and agreed that the Government would call for the forthcoming reviews of each of the Commercial Television Industry Codes of Practice and the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice to specifically address sources and beneficiaries of sexualisation of children, and its short- and long-term effects. It was also agreed that the Australian Media and Communications Authority would make recommendations on how to prevent and/or reduce or ameliorate the effects of the sexualisation of children occurring in the media, and on the effectiveness of any strategies under consideration.

Submission to Senate Inquiry

The APS made a submission in April 2008 to the Senate Inquiry into the Sexualisation of Children in the Contemporary Media Environment. The submission focused on two aspects of the Inquiry: i) the short- and long-term effects of exposure to sexualising images and themes on the emotional, psychological, cognitive and physical wellbeing of children, young people, and adults; and ii) strategies to prevent and/or reduce the sexualisation of children in the media, and evidence for the effectiveness of different approaches in ameliorating its effects.

As a result of the submission, the APS was invited to give evidence to a public hearing of the Senate Inquiry Committee in Sydney. The Inquiry was particularly interested in APS recommendations for future research in this area, and strategies for preventing the amount of sexualisation that occurs in our society. President Amanda Gordon represented the APS at the hearing and provided further evidence around research priorities (intervention studies, longitudinal research) and public education campaigns (to encourage parents to monitor their children's viewing of TV, film and video, discuss viewed material with their children, encourage critical viewing skills, and increase their awareness of rating systems).

APS Tip Sheet on helping girls develop a positive self image

As legislators and media experts debate the case for control or restraint of advertising, many parents remain anxious about the pressure on girls to conform to images and values portrayed in the media. To help parents deal with this increasing sexualisation of girls in the media, the APS Public Interest team developed a Tip Sheet Helping girls develop a positive self image. Advice to parents in the Tip Sheet includes: tuning in to what girls watch and listen to and asking questions about why girls are portrayed the way they are; encouraging girls to participate in activities that emphasise skills and abilities over physical appearance; helping girls find people to admire who have become heroes not because they are rich or thin, but because they have demonstrated more positive values; and showing girls that they are loved for who they are and how they think, rather than what they look like. The Tip Sheet is being promoted in primary and secondary schools around Australia, and is available on the APS website: www.psychology.org.au/publications/tip_sheets/girls_positive_image/.  

Ongoing contribution to public debate

Recent public controversies about the appropriateness of the use of sexualised images of children in artistic contexts have revolved around issues of informed consent versus freedom of artistic expression, and the inherent innocence of children's bodies versus how they might be viewed by paedophiles. The APS will continue to contribute to such debates through media releases and formal submissions by drawing on a growing evidence base on the effects of sexualised images on the wellbeing of young people, particularly girls, whether they be photographic models or potential victims of abuse themselves. n

The American Psychological Association report on the findings of a taskforce into the sexualisation of children (2007) provided the APS with a very useful source of background information on the effects of the sexualisation of children in a range of emotional and psychological domains, and excellent recommendations for further research and interventions. The APA report can be downloaded from www.apa.org/pi/wpo/sexualizationrep.pdf.

Dr Susie Burke MAPS
Senior researcher, Psychology in the Public Interest
APS National Office