Brits Implementing Policies to Protect Children from an Exploitative Marketplace

sexualization of children

Oh, I get it. He breastfeeds. And also he will grow up to objectify women. It's a double-edged sword. I mean, entendre.

People often say that Europe is perpetually like America was 20 years ago, but when it comes to taking care of children and supporting families, Europeans – for the most part – are way ahead of us.  The British government has announced that it will launch a complaint website where parents will be able to submit examples of items and programming that sexualizes children.  According to BBC News, “The measure is among the proposals in a review on the commercialisation and sexualisation of children, from Mothers’ Union boss Reg Bailey.”  The Mothers’ Union is a Christian charity and lobbying organization working to support family life – but get this – they’re not anti-gay!  Holy cow, you guys.  The Brits really are living in the future.  Supporting families of all stripes?  Wow!

In his review, “Letting Children be Children” (which was released June 6th) Bailey writes, the “pressure on children to grow up takes two different but related forms: the pressure to take part in a sexualised life before they are ready to do so; and the commercial pressure to consume the vast range of goods and services that are available to children and young people of all ages.”  British Prime Minister David Cameron apparently agrees with Bailey’s findings, and “plans to hold a summit on progress on the issues in October.”  He will invite – nay, “summon,” according to the BBC, “retailers, advertisers, broadcasters, magazine editors, video games and music industry chiefs and regulators” to the event.

Here’s a list of some of the societal changes being proposed based on the Mothers’ Union report:

  • Steamy pop videos would be restricted to older teenagers and later television slots and magazines featuring sexualised images covered up on shelves.
  • All new home internet services, laptops or mobile phones would have the option to ban adult material.
  • Parents would be given more say in the television watershed guidelines.  (The watershed encompasses the hours during which adult programming can be shown.)
  • The review coincides with stricter “good practice” guidance for shops selling children’s clothing.  (“Good practice,” meaning, don’t sell my 7-year-old a padded push-up bikini.)

When parents in the U.S. got up in arms about the Abercrombie push-up bikini, it was pulled.  (Same thing with Amazon’s Pedophile Guide.)  But in Britain, the British Retail Consortium is being more proactive.  The BRC worked with the Minister of State for Children and Families to create Childrenswear Guidelines that align with recommendations in the Mothers’ Union report.  Here’s a snippet:

Fabrics and cut should provide for modesty:  for example, sheer fabrics without lining are not acceptable for childrenswear bodices or skirts (but may be, with care, on other parts of the garment). Colour, pattern and decoration should be chosen with care.  Slogans and imagery (including licensed images and brandmarks) must be age appropriate and without undesirable associations or connotations (for example, sexually suggestive, demeaning, derogative or political material or phrasing that could be interpreted as such).  Humorous slogans need to be tested against a broad range of views as they can cause unforeseen and unintended offence.  Gender specific slogans also need careful consideration. Skirt and short length, neck/shoulder line and underwear shape need careful consideration, taking account of the stretch properties of the fabric used and the intended age group.

Towards the end of that quote, I caught myself thinking, “Hey, this is getting kind of PC.”  But then I realized, this is clothing for children we’re talking about.  Why do t-shirts for 4-year-olds need a hilarious zinger or the words PRETTY PRINCESS printed on them?  Clearly, phrases like “pretty princess” or “tough guy” aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but onesies bearing innuendos like “boob man” and “lady killer” may be on their way out.

Prime Minister Cameron said in response to Bailey’s report, “As you say, we should not try and wrap children up in cotton wool or simply throw our hands up and accept the world as it is.  Instead, we should look to put the brakes on an unthinking drift towards ever greater commercialisation and sexualisation.”  The BBC notes, “Controversial TV such as the 2010 X Factor final… raised eyebrows with its raunchy performances from Rihanna and Christina Aguilera,” even though the performances complied with the broadcasting code.  Rihanna’s video for her latest single, Man Down, complies with U.S. broadcasting code, but it still has the Parents Television Council working to get it off the air since it depicts a shooting in vivid detail.

Several British ministers have thrown their support behind Bailey’s work, including Children’s Minister Sarah Teather and Culture minister Ed Vaizey.  Teather says, “It is not government’s role to interfere in family life, but parents often tell me that they would like more support so that they can navigate the rapidly-changing technological and commercial world.  Reg’s review shows the way for business and government to give them this support.”  Vaizey adds, “We know that many parents are concerned that their children could be exposed to content that seems too adult, be it online, on TV, through adverts or in music videos.  I welcome the collaborative way that regulators and industry have engaged with Reg Bailey.  For our part, we are committed to consulting on whether age ratings on music videos would provide effective protection for children.”

It’s important to note, however, that despite support from the prime minister and others, the government is simply requesting (and the report itself suggests) that industry comply with the recommendations set forth in Bailey’s report.  There’s no legislation attached to any of the requested changes – yet.  The Mothers’ Union issued a statement in response, saying, “We cannot agree with the Review that a purely consensual approach will be the most effective, and that further regulation or legislation would necessarily disempower parents.  As the Review points out several times, parents want help and support to address the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood; and Government intervention is one way of achieving this.  We should not be afraid to challenge industry when the welfare of our children, and their future, is at stake.”

What do you think?  Could we use a similar government-sponsored review in this country?  Are you worried about the omnipresent commercial and sexual overtones in our culture and the issue of “age compression?”  Or do you think buying habits dictate what is sold and therefore consumers are solely responsible for what’s in the marketplace?  Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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