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Posted at 03:00 AM ET, 02/07/2012

The sexualization of children and what schools can do about it

This was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal .

By Mark Phillips

There is a social phenomenon in the United States that has significant implications for educators.

Our society sends destructive mixed messages to children about sex. The Puritan ethic is still alive and many adults are uncomfortable talking about sex to young people. Sex education in schools is spotty and often ineffective; more sex education — or, rather, misinformation — is transmitted in peer groups than by parents or schools. Meanwhile, sex is sold as a commodity in advertisements, movies, TV shows and on the Internet, rarely portrayed as associated with intimacy.

One aspect of this problem was highlighted for me recently at a mall, where two girls no older than 9 or 10 walked by wearing makeup and dressed as if they were about to pose for a sexy ad. This behavior is rooted in advertisements that saturate television and magazines with sexualized images of increasingly young girls, as well as products that portray girls as sexual objects. Dolls dressed in sexually revealing clothing are popular, and bikini underpants are marketed to preschool girls.

Children also have access to sexually explicit computer websites and continual sexual messages conveyed by television in prime time programming. The representation of desirable young girls invariably features unblemished faces, thin bodies, and ample breasts. The message isn’t subtle, and the values implicitly being taught aren’t what most of us would prescribe for healthy child development.

Despite considerable advances in women’s rights, the emphasis on physical beauty and sexiness helps distort the self-image of young girls. They are bombarded with air-brushed and doctored images of how they should look, images that none of them can live up to and that can leave them dissatisfied with how they look as well as dependent on certain products to make them feel attractive. Boys are being simultaneously conditioned to desire girls who are sexy in this unrealistic picture of perfection.

That this is all beginning at pre-school ages should be even more alarming.

Parental banning of television or computer access or Bratz dolls isn’t the answer as it is more likely to create rebellion than to change children’s attitudes or behavior. Fighting the peer culture is a losing battle. The media saturation is pervasive and inescapable. Our kids are learning about sexuality every day, but not from the healthiest sources.

Corrective education is the best possible antidote. Schools can make a significant difference by creating opportunities for informative dialogue about the messages conveyed by ads, television programs and movies, computer websites and merchandise. This should begin early, in elementary schools.

 I recommend that teachers as well as parents read So Sexy, So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids, by Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne, for ideas on how to protect our children. Kilbourne’s latest video, Killing us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women , should be required viewing in every one of our secondary schools.

What is incontestable is that some protection is necessary. This should begin with education in both the home and the school.

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