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Too Much Too Young

The sexualisation of children

Children nowadays are surrounded by sexual images all the time. The lines between childhood and adulthood are increasingly blurred. Does that matter?

By Sophie Raworth

When my daughter Ella turned six last year, she was given a pop music DVD by one of her friends. After much pestering, I sat down to watch it with her and her younger brother and sister. Pop stars like the Saturdays and Girls Aloud appeared on our screen, and within minutes I felt uncomfortable: I saw heavily made-up girls in skimpy clothes with lots of cleavage showing off sexy dance moves. My gut reaction was to switch it off. I couldn't cope with my kids being bombarded with those images.

But children nowadays are surrounded by sexual images all the time. The lines between childhood and adulthood are increasingly blurred. Does that matter? I set off on a journey for BBC's Panorama to find out.

I spoke to Justine Roberts, the co-founder of Mumsnet, who told me that mothers worry that their daughters are encouraged to be sexual. "We're talking about T-shirts that say 'Future Wag' or 'You know I'm feeling sexy, are you?' for young kids," she said. "You may think, oh, it's saucy, we all dressed up didn't we – but it goes beyond that."

According to the LSE's research, more than 24 per cent of nine- to 16-year-olds said they had looked at pornography in the past year.

Now the Coalition has launched an independent review into the sexualisation of children that will consider a code of conduct on "age-appropriate" marketing and even a new watchdog.

So what is really out there? Trawling the shops of Oxford Street, I have to say I struggled to find many sexualised products for children. What did make me uncomfortable, though, was a strong undercurrent of sexuality that runs through many girls' clothing ranges – low-cut dresses, sequins and lace are everywhere.

In Scotland, politicians asked Dr Rachel Russell, a sociologist, to be part of a team researching the prevalence of these "sexualised" products. She found little in Glasgow's stores that was overtly sexualising children. The subject makes headlines, in her view, because "it's a textbook moral panic".

I wonder if our collective fear around adult clothing in tiny sizes is more to do with the worry that a more sexualised upbringing will lead our children to sexual experimentation at an earlier age. Our children are growing up in a world of social networks, internet access and mobile phones. No generation of teenagers has ever had such freedom to explore the secrets of the adult world. Research carried out by the London School of Economics shows that 52 per cent of British children between the ages of nine and 16 now have internet access in their bedrooms. Many of them spend hours on social networking sites such as Facebook, chatting to friends but also flirting with strangers.

I talked to Joel, 14, who spends hours in his bedroom online, and with his 700 "friends" on Facebook. But it's not just Facebook that Joel and his friends are looking at. At the local football club, almost all of his team-mates told us that they had viewed pornography online. They are not alone. According to the LSE's research, more than 24 per cent of nine- to 16-year-olds said they had looked at pornography in the past year.

WATCH THE PANORMA DOCUMENTARY http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/search?q=too%20much%20too%20young

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