Education & Family

Viewpoints: Tackling the sexualisation of children

legs in heels
Image caption Teachers say they need more advice on how to tackle some of the issues they are seeing now

Concerns about easy access to pornography, an over-sexualised culture and low self-esteem and body image were voiced repeatedly at teacher union conferences this Easter.

Teachers said they were worried about pupils growing up in a culture where pornographic images were widely available and teenagers felt pressured to have a "perfect" body.

So what is the best way forward for protecting the young and also educating children and young people about the dangers they may face? The BBC News website has gathered a range of viewpoints.

Helen Porter, teacher from Berkshire and member of Association of Teachers and Lecturers

Having heard of a 13-year-old girl taking part in an amateur porn video, I felt sickened and moved to ask for more research on this issue and more guidance and training for teachers, so that we can help to educate youngsters about the consequences of viewing so much porn. They cannot foresee these consequences for themselves.

I think lessons about the dangerous consequences of viewing porn, sexting etc should be part of the sex and relationship education (SRE) curriculum. Teachers will need to be well trained and provided with appropriate resources to deliver such lessons effectively. It may also be necessary to alert younger children (10-11 years) about some of these dangers. This would need to be handled very sensitively and again, more research and teacher training is required.

It would be wonderful if we could limit the viewing of porn by young people, however, it is very unlikely that we will ever be able to stop it. We must ensure that we educate our children about the dangers and consequences of viewing porn, so that they can make sensible decisions for themselves.

I also think lessons on body image and well-being should be included as part of the personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) curriculum. We suggest at least one one-hour lesson each year.

This education should start young and certainly by the age of eight or nine and continue until at least 16. These lessons should aim to shift the focus from idealized body image to healthy bodies that are fit-for-purpose.

So healthy diet and appropriate exercise are important, but everyone should be encouraged to feel proud of their body whatever their shape/size/colour/proportions.

Schools must also implement measures to raise self esteem for all pupils. Central YMCA Qualifications have developed a suite of three qualifications in personal well-being and body image. It is hoped that more secondary schools will offer these to pupils.

BBC School Reporters from Tarporley High School in Cheshire

Lizzie, aged 15: The media should use more plus-size models. That would help young people - especially girls - feel better about themselves. The media shouldn't give out this image that people have perfect bodies, perfect skin, perfect hair all the time. I think there's a responsibility on parents to monitor their children's use on the computer, but then they still have phones and iPods and other devices, so there's only so much that can be done.

I don't think the dangers of sexting are clear enough to young people. I think lots of young people think it's just for fun and there's a really dangerous side to it.

Ellie, aged 15: When I go on Facebook, you see so many pictures of people and it makes me feel more pressured to make myself look nice. There are "likes" on pictures, so if someone has 1,000 "likes" on their picture and you don't, it makes you feel a bit more pressured to get more! But I don't think much can be done about it, to be honest.

They should stop having Page Three girls in the newspapers - it's basically giving people really easy access to it so they don't even have to go out of their way, and that's wrong. If people want to find pornography they can do, but making it so easy with Page Three isn't helping.

I do think that teachers and schools could do more. They can't control what anyone does outside of school, but if they ran assemblies on it or something like that so we understand the dangers.

Ben, aged 15: I think porn is a bigger problem now, because it's pretty much everywhere. If anyone wants to have a look at something, they can just google it. But I don't think there's much you can do about it - the internet is such a big thing, and you can't shut it down.

Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mothers' Union and author of the Bailey Review

Life moves on very quickly, sometimes the technology outpaces the children and young people's ability - and parents' ability - to understand what the issues are. So if a child sends a self-generated picture and sends it to a boyfriend, they might be unaware of the potential consequences of that at the time.

Parents find it difficult to talk about these topics. Sometimes technology becomes an excuse not to talk about these difficult topics. If we can encourage children and young people to talk to their parents, they're the ones who can do something about it.

Teachers need to be aware of the issues and that's quite an education as the ball moves fast and children are very fast at picking up this technology. Most schools will make attempts to deal with these issues, but often it can become a tick-box exercise.

It really needs someone who will engage with it. Schools need to engage with parents - they can hold open evenings where they get someone in from industry to talk to parents and explain the potential hazards out there and how they can protect their children.

But you can't just say to people it's down to the teachers or the parents to deal with the problems - everyone has to take responsibility. So, for example, parental controls need to be easy for people to use - quite often they're not, they need to be more family-friendly, easier to turn on.

But the trouble with them is that they can give parents a false sense of security. Really the best filter is emotionally resilient children who know what is and isn't appropriate material to look at and engage with.

Children and young people are much more aware of these things than we realise, but they need our help to steer their way through it. I would encourage parents not to shy away from it, but to deal with it.

You could get very depressed about it all, but I'm optimistic because we can make a difference. We need goodwill from industry, parents need to feel more confident and children need to be emotionally resilient.

Anne Godfrey, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Marketing

In 2011, Reg Bailey, author of the Bailey review of the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, described an increasingly "sexualised" wallpaper surrounding children and called on businesses and the media to play their part in taking positive measures to prevent this from continuing.

Just under two years later and, whilst we've seen great progress in this area, there is still work to be done.

Parents, teachers, politicians and industry all have a role to play. Teachers and parents can help children to navigate a complicated landscape armed with the relevant resources, tools and support from industry bodies and government.

CIM works with its members to ensure they understand their responsibility as marketing professionals and the impact their business decisions have on consumers and society. We believe that by looking at the marketing decisions which lead to the creation of these inappropriate adverts and products, we can help treat some of the causes of the problem, and not just the symptoms.

Siobhan Freegard, founder of Netmums

Almost every parent we speak with on Netmums is concerned and worries that their child is growing up far too fast. A recent Netmums study found 89% of parents agree modern children are under much more pressure and grow up far faster than previous generations.

Over half say their child believes body image and appearance is the most important thing about someone, which is a shocking reflection on what modern society values. Almost a third also said their child was being sexualized too early and felt pushed into being interested in sex before they were ready.

Clearly something is going badly wrong with childhood but it is hard for parents to tackle, as there is no single cause. Rather there is a toxic combination of marketing, media and peer pressure which means children no longer want to be seen as children, even when as parents we know they still are.

The purpose of schooling isn't just academic leaning, but to create a rounded person. Schools are about to start teaching personal finance so kids can manage their money, so it makes perfect sense to teach personal well-being so kids can bolster their sense of self-worth.

The purpose of this shouldn't be to "take the burden" off parents but to work with parents and make sure - together - we are raising a generation of happy, healthy children.

In many ways we are in the middle of a big experiment, as no generation before has ever grown up with instant access to so much information, and much of it being information we would naturally wish to shield them from. There is no roadmap to success so we need to put our children's well-being first on every step along this new journey.

Our children may think we are being overcautious, but rising levels of child depression, eating disorders and self-harm show we are right to be cautious until the full effects of placing so much pressure on youngsters is fully understood.

Lucy Emmerson, principal officer of the Sex Education Forum

Providing sex and relationships education (SRE) in school and at home is vital because adults can offer factually correct information and an opportunity for safe discussion that matches the maturity of the child.

Some secondary schools are also choosing to teach a lesson directly about pornography with older pupils, for example, Year 10 and 11. A lesson with this age-group could explore questions such as "Does pornography present particular values in relation to power, gender and sexual behaviour?" and "What are realistic and unrealistic standards for bodily appearance?"

Parents have a crucial role in SRE. Most parents are supportive of SRE and want to have a role at home and expect school to cover it as well. However many parents fail to fulfil the role they aspire to and wish that they found it easier to talk to their children about growing up, sex and relationships.

This often reflects parents' own poor experiences of SRE and their feeling of embarrassment about the subject. The research shows that SRE is more effective if home and school are involved. Schools and parents can work together on starting an open dialogue about SRE.

Teaching children and young people to be critical consumers of media and able to discuss issues about the body, gender and sexual behaviour will equip them with "filters in their head" to be more in control of the media available to them.

As a society we also need to be more open and honest about sex and relationships and more confident about the language we use.

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