05/06/2011 20:03 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

Kids Growing Up Too Fast? How To Put The Brakes On

Kids today are bombarded with with graphic sexual messages - from the programmes they watch on TV to the clothes they wear and the music they listen to. It's no surprise experts say they're growing up too quickly and becoming over-sexualised.
So what are the risks? And what can parents do to protect their children from this growing threat...?

Negative effects

Studies have long linked premature sexualisation with eating disorders in children and teenagers – and these disorders are showing up in younger and younger children, with kids has young as five or six are starving themselves to achieve the "perfect" body image. A recent survey by the charity, The Children's Society, showed that children are most unhappy with their appearance, above confidence, school and family life.

In her report commissioned by the Home Office, Dr. Linda Papadopoulos blamed music videos, advertising, games and magazines for leading girls to believe that the most important of all is to be 'hot' and submissive. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to be macho and to objectify women.

Surveys carried out by Girlguiding UK and the Mental Health Foundation on girls aged 10 to 14 found that "premature sexualisation and the pressure to grow up too quickly" were two key negative influences on girls' emotional and mental wellbeing.

Looking at pictures of models, pop stars and actresses made a fifth of the girls feel sad, two-fifths feel bad about themselves and over a tenth (12 per cent) feel angry.

Further research discovered that 46% of girls aged 11 to 16 would consider cosmetic surgery and that girls start to dislike their appearance as early as 10 or 11.

Another outcome of this 'too much, too soon' culture is the rise of sexual bullying as an increasing number of girls feel pressured into posting pictures of themselves posing topless or naked on social networks.

On top of this, many experts believe representing children as miniature adults playing sexual roles may suggest to paedophiles that, whatever the law says, children are sexually available.

So how can we slow down the increasingly sexualised representations of childhood in advertising, marketing and programme-making?

The Prime Minister David Cameron has commissioned a report - The Bailey Review - on the sexual commercialisation of children and what can be done to prevent it, which is due to be released on Monday 6 June.

However, this is a problem that must be tackled on many levels at once. Government, programme-producers, internet game-designers, clothes manufacturers, advertisers and, of course, most importantly, parents must all play a role in deciding what is acceptable for children to be exposed to.

What parents can do

Although you may feel helpless, there are a lot of things you can do to help protect – and educate – your kids. Here are 10 suggestions for starters...

Provide children with a stable and supportive network of friends by taking them to a club such as Brownies or sports/dance activities, where the belief that it's who they are (not what they look like) that matters most.

Impose good boundaries. Healthy, positive discipline draws boundaries for behaviour, provides security, and gives children the confidence to cope with the physical and psychological changes they experience as they begin puberty.

Teach kids to believe their self worth isn't based on their looks but what kind of person they are. Young girls are constantly being told that their worth and potential popularity is based on how pretty they are. Instead praise them for their school work, being creative, being kind...

Take a strong stance against clothes or make-up that you consider to be too old or too sexual. Make rules about types of clothes that are and aren't acceptable, and stick to them. With a little bit of searching you can find fun clothing both you and kids like. Finding it difficult to find clothes for young girls that don't mimic adult clothes? Voice your concerns to the shops.

Be open and honest about sex. Many parents wait for their children to openly ask questions about sexuality and relationships before giving any sort of guidance. However, children often lack the courage or the vocabulary to pose the questions they want to ask. So be proactive, talking as openly with your children as is appropriate. And don't make it a one-time conversation. Your children need to know they are always welcome to come to you and chat.

Monitor your child's internet usage by keeping the computer in the living room where you can see what websites they visit, and put a filter on it. Be mindful of what your children watch, avoiding shows where the characters are constantly talking about impressing boys, wearing sexy clothing and make-up and graphic music videos. And sit down with them. That way you can talk about what they're seeing, discuss how realistic it is and present an alternative point of view.

Are the toys you are buying for your girls contradicting what you are teaching them about their sexuality, and self-worth? Forget Bratz, there are lots of options to choose from that don't objectify women. Don't back down and settle for what is popular .

Although you're trying to teach looks aren't everything, girls especially need to be told they are beautiful without 'sexy' clothes or tons of make-up. If they don't feel validated at home, they'll look elsewhere for attention.

Think about your own actions. Kids pick up most of the things they learn by what we do, not by what we say. Have a healthy self-image of yourself so that you can create one in your daughter. Dads - your daughters look to you as a model for how they should expect men to treat them. Set the standard high.

Speak to your child's school. Do they offer media awareness lessons and provide comprehensive sexual education? Also, encourage your child to take part in extracurricular music, drama, and games lessons that stress development of a talent or skill.

Do you have any advice to share with others? Leave your comments below.