Hypersexualization of Tweens and Teens

Posted by: Nicole Maier on July 12, 2012 1:11 pm

If you follow the digital world at all (and that’s all of you) you will have seen the recent surge of the latest data on how the Internet, cellphones, social media, clothing style shifts, music video’s and tween/teen movies have impacted the hypersexualization of our children today.

Sitting in the audience with about 200 other counsellors, psychologists, social workers and concerned adults, I recently viewed the acclaimed work of the talented Maureen Palmer of CBC, documenting the effect of this shift in culture, on youth today. Here are a few stats:

  • Pre-teen clothing market is worth an estimated 150 billion dollars a year.
A survey of 15 major pre-teen clothing sites found that 1/3 of apparel was considered ‘sexualized’.

  • A recent survey showed that 22% of teenage girls report anal sex in the last 60 days.

  • It’s estimated that 70-80% of teenage boys watch pornography.

  • Another survey showed that 1/3 admit to sending a naked or near naked picture to their ‘crush’

The pressure to be a performer as a young girl is a relatively new phenomenon that researchers are concerned will have devastating consequences. Deborah Tolman, of the American Psychological Association, states that at first glance the behavior of young girls could be seen as empowering as they take charge of their own bodies by texting revealing pictures and dressing in provocative clothing. However, the motivation for this comes from a desire to perform creating a false sense of empowerment. Further motivating this desire is another influence, Cosmopolitan, historically a magazine marketed to the 20 something, 30 something woman, this magazine is now being viewed regularly by girls in their early teens and tweens. Peggy Orenstein also adds unique insight on this subject: “ Girls need to understand that sexuality is something that comes from within and connects a girl to herself and to her desire and to her needs and her wants and is ultimately empowering as she gets older whereas sexualization is the performance of all that and it’s a performance of sexuality and a performance of sexual entitlement that actually disconnects them from that stronger external sense of self.

Aside from potentially altered self-esteem and an internal disconnect what are the other risks of this behavior? Intense shame and embarrassment. Cameras are ubiquitous now; kids are used to posing and sharing all the time. What they are not used to and could have life long consequences, is the rest of the world viewing their pictures or texts. Often the text messages with naked photos are sent when the young woman are intoxicated and trying to impress a guy.

The consequences can have immediate impact as well. Maureen and her film team interviewed willing 15 year olds who shared their stories about how this impacted their lives. Fortunately for these girls, having a place where they can share their experience with others so they can learn from their mistakes was an empowering, courageous experience for them.

It’s not just girls who are at risk either. Our young boys are being affected dramatically. To quote Maureen Palmer from her post documentary discussion on June 21, 2012, “UCLA psychiatrist Dan Seigel notes that with the younger exposure to porn, the brains of boys are changing.” How will this impact their future relationships in terms of intimacy? What we are seeing now is an expectation, at a shockingly young age as well, for girls to be their performers, just as they have seen on line. The documentary reveals “anal is the new oral!”

Aside from worrying incessantly, attempting to eradicate all digital access into our homes, what can parents do to help their young children either avoid this or cope better? It all comes back to communication, and starting early. Palmer’s team revealed that talking to our kids at the younger ages of 5 or 6, young as it seems, is necessary. Children at this age may unknowingly come across porn, and in age appropriate terms, discussions are crucial. With older pre-teens exploring with them the differences of real-life sex vs fantasy sex they may come across on the screen can give them some context about what they are exposed to. And should they stumble upon violent porn or hard-core porn, their judgments and reality will be no doubt askew. Remaining open and non-judgemental is vital say the experts. If we are quick to judge, likely they will not talk to us at all.

Another angle for parents to consider with their children is to open up the lens to make note of healthy images of body type and relationships as they are seen in the media. I know for my children, car/driving dialogue works best with these sorts of matters. We talk about all sorts of uncomfortable subject matter when driving as we can avoid the whole eye contact piece and reduce confrontation should it arise.

Another great recommendation Palmer noted was for parents of older children, gather up the electronics from their rooms come 10pm so they won’t be tempted to text all night as well as ensure a good night’s sleep.

As alarming as Palmer’s piece has shown, parents take comfort that this is being discussed, and Palmer noted with vigor in her post film discussion that solutions to these problems do not rest solely on the parents, but rather as a collective in society. Together we have the responsibility to keep up with the technology more than ever, stay informed, as well as talk to other parents. Most of all, don’t judge.

If this open forum on the problems with sexting and the hypersexualization resonates with you, go to the YWCA’s page and “like” the campaign, “Taking Sexy Back.” Might as well.

The film:


Resources for Parents

Featured in the Film

Sexualization of Girls – report from the APA Task Force

iGirl – empowerment workshops

Gail Dines – anti-pornography author

Laci Green Tweeting, Texting, Teens & Chat: The Internet and Sex in the Lives of Youth – lecture by Lucia O’Sullivan

Mediated Reality – Jesse Miller

Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood Peggy Orenstein – author 
Ness Fraser – blogger

Advice for Parents

Common Sense Media: Talk about SextingThat’s Not Cool.comConnect Safely


*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

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