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Girls on film: could new regulations stop the sexualisation of children?

Limiting children’s access to now widespread “pornified” media will require serious political will. lamont_cranston/Flickr

Soft porn music videos on television. Girls mini-mags featuring fashion and celebrity gossip at the supermarket checkout. Porn at eye-level in the petrol station. Billboards on the trips in between.

As a parent in 2012, how was your weekend? If you’re fed up and you’d like to see a healthy media environment for children as a higher political priority, you’re not alone.

In 2008, a Senate Inquiry into the sexualisation of children in contemporary media concluded that “preventing the premature sexualisation of children is a significant cultural challenge”. It went on to say that the “onus is on broadcasters, publishers, advertisers, retailers and manufacturers to take account of these community concerns.”

But have those industries profiting from media that contribute to sexualisation changed anything in the past four years? Not enough to make a difference for the average parent and child, that’s for sure – so politicians taking a stronger stand is now well overdue.

More decisive action by government has been practically difficult so far, because media regulation has been scattered over a range of different bodies originally created for distinct media industries (print, television, radio). This multiplied the level of both political and administrative effort needed to implement regulatory changes putting the brakes on industry-led sexualisation.

This practical barrier may be starting to shift, however, because historically patchwork media regulation doesn’t reflect the reality of the digital era. Now, the same media content can be accessed via a range of different technologies (print, television and radio are at least partially available via any internet-enabled device).

This merging of previously distinct media industries is known as “convergence”, and regulating it appropriately is the topic of the recently released Convergence Review.

The Convergence Review recommended a new content-across-platforms regulator, which, in principle, would enable consistent regulation of media content across different technological platforms; that is, regardless of the device used to access the content. If this recommendation were to be implemented, the task of acting to reduce sexualising media content would become significantly simpler for government.

Although the underlying and major issue of industry opposition to change would remain, the place where government could begin to confront it would be centralised. So far, so good. But to what degree does the Review specifically address sexualisation?

In media regulation, classification is normally used to restrict access to harmful or offensive material. The G, PG, M, MA, and AV ratings for television are examples of classifications, and are used in conjunction with time periods during television programming in order to restrict children’s access to material unsuitable for them.

On matters relating to classification, the Convergence Review largely defers to a report released earlier this year by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC). The focus of the ALRC report is on restricting children’s access to sexually explicit material.

Important as this is, it leaves an awful lot out. In terms of the definitions used by regulators, much material that concerns both parents and experts in child health and development is not “sexually explicit” but “sexually suggestive” (four examples were given at the start of this article).

Musicians such as Lady Gaga have been criticised for their overt sexuality as role models for children Flickr/Alfred Hermida

As any parent knows, children face a tsunami of heavily sexually suggestive media content in the course of their normal interactions within the broader community.

Limiting children’s access to now widespread “pornified” media will require serious political will. Fortunately, there’s strong and consistently expressed community concern about the impacts of sexualisation on children.

Experts are also concerned about its contribution to body and self-image issues, now common in primary school children. Such issues are associated with low self-esteem and self-worth, and risk developing further into depression, anxiety and disordered eating behaviours.

Barely a month ago, the Australian Medical Association – concerned at the risks sexualisation poses for child health – called for a new inquiry into the issue.

It is as yet unclear to what degree the Convergence Review will be implemented. But if it is, new, stricter standards to support the rights of children to a healthy media environment should be included in a streamlined content regulation system stretching across all media modes.

The battle to ensure that such standards are enforced would remain. But creating a media regulation framework that acknowledges the rights of children to participate in general community life without risks to their health would be a good start.

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