How are young people affected by sexual images in the media?

Leading psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos highlights the consequences of the sexualisation of young people in an increasingly complex world.

I feel in many ways that I’m part of the ‘lucky’ generation when it comes to sexual politics. My mum went out to work but she didn’t exactly burn her bra; I simply grew up surrounded by the belief that my worth was based on who I was, my talents and what I did with them.

I was aware of the media, of course, but even though it feels like yesterday, the internet didn’t even exist, teenage magazines were in their innocent infancy and sex was a really big deal. We had our own version of the pressures all teenagers face – discovering our emerging selves while wanting to be liked, to be clever and to be popular, if at all possible – but I feel we had just that bit more time and space in which to find out who we were.

When I was asked by the Government to look at the relationship between sexualisation and growing violence towards women, I truly wasn’t prepared for what I would find.

Why did it feel like we had taken so many steps backward in terms of sexual equality among young people and healthy sexuality? How had rape scenes become a normal part of video war games? Why were so many girls having breast enlargement surgery as teenagers and what possessed a girl to sell her virginity on eBay? Were teenagers just different today and growing up more quickly or was something else going on?

What is ‘sexualisation’?

Many of us in the ‘lucky’ generation are now parents and it feels like we’re just now starting to wake up to what is going on with our children and the impact of premature sexualisation.

Simply put, sexualisation is the imposition of adult sexuality on to children and young people before they are capable of dealing with it mentally, emotionally or physically.

While girls are valuing themselves in terms of how sexually desirable they are to boys, boys are feeling the pressure to be hyper masculine.

"There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that sexualisation is having a profound impact on our children’s emotional development and how they develop their sense of identity."

Kids are learning how to have sex from pornography and we live in a world that is more saturated by images than at any other time in our modern history.

Behind every image lies a message about expectations, values and ideals. Right now, those images more often than not present and perpetuate a world where women are revered and rewarded for their physical attributes. Gender stereotypes are back in fashion and to object is often to be accused of lacking a sense of humour or proportion.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that sexualisation is having a profound impact on our children’s emotional development and how they develop their sense of identity. Young people have a natural, healthy interest in sex. But when their developing sexuality is moulded to fit adult stereotypes, this can compromise that healthy developmental process.

Children no longer have the time and space to extend their own understanding as images and constructs are literally ‘in their face’ on a daily basis, often before their minds are ready to know how to interpret or process them. Instead of putting children in control of their sexuality, we are in danger of isolating them from it altogether.

What are the consequences?

The serious negative consequences associated with the sexualisation of children is becoming ever more clear in areas of body confidence, ambitions, low self-esteem, sexual harassment, abuse within teen relationships and views on sexual violence.

A study in America found a direct correlation between children’s exposure to sexual content on television and teen pregnancy rates.

The World Health Organization estimates that 20% of girls and 11% of boys in the UK have been sexually assaulted. Homophobia is still a significant problem within schools.

These are the kinds of consequences that leave long-term effects, often resurfacing at vulnerable times during their adult life, affecting careers, relationships and, in turn, how they parent their own children.

What can we do to help young people?

It’s unrealistic to assume that we can stop our children and young people from being exposed to unhealthy images but we can give them tools to navigate the world around them.

From digital citizenship to media literacy, equipping kids with tools to help them understand and interpret what they see without internalising all the negative messages can help them build their self-esteem and inner confidence so they feel secure in their own identity. Just as they are taught reading comprehension and, later, literary criticism, children can be taught how to critique the media they consume.

We may think our children are highly literate when it comes to media but it’s just that they know how to work it, not how to interpret it. Where these classes are already happening in schools, the children are taking to it with relish and then starting to create their own forms of media and expression rather than simply sitting back and letting it all come to them.

With encouragement and guidance, children are incredibly creative and have the potential for amazing inner strength, resilience and individual thought.

This article first appeared in Vodafone’s Digital Parenting magazine (2012).

Dr Linda Papadopoulos

Dr Linda Papadopoulos’ 14-year career as a research scientist and practising psychologist has led to her work being published in some of the most well-regarded academic journals and given rise to a high profile media career.