The sexual assault on children: how childhood is being destroyed

“Child see, child do”, is the premise of a video by the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect of Australia (NAPCAN), played by partners around in the world and seen by millions of people in the last ten years. Far from being a mere product of intuition, the association between early exposure to media content with strong sensual or sexual appeal and the increasing sexualization of childhood has been a concern of scholars across the planet. A quick search on Google Schoolar illustrates this: there are more than 30 a thousand results just for the terms child sexualization and social media.

During the first year of the pandemic, psychologist Christia Spears Brown, a professor at the University of Kentucky, prepared a report stating that the average American child in elementary school attends the four and a half hours of television a day. “At this exposure rate, children see approximately 78.770 Examples of ‘sexy girls’ models only in children’s programming every year. And with schools, playgrounds and extracurricular activities on hold, kids are likely to consume a lot more media this year,” he wrote to the Council of Contemporary Families, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization based at the University of Texas.

According to Brown, even before the end of elementary school, girls have been equating sexualized appearance as a marker of popularity and status. That is, they bet on “looking sexy” before having any understanding of the subject or understanding it as a way to attract the attention of the opposite sex. The consequences range from difficulties in accepting their own bodies to poor school performance (to the extent that girls pretend to be less intelligent, to appear more attractive).

The American Psychological Association (APA) , in the acronym in English) points out that sexualization (a condition opposite to healthy sexuality), among other contexts, occurs when sexuality is inappropriately imposed on a person – which is the case with children. The damage in this case can affect the individual’s cognitive function, physical and mental health and healthy sexual development, with by-products such as eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression.

“Our research with girls from 11 to 14 years shows that when they prioritize sexualized attractiveness, even temporarily, they seem to deprioritize, within themselves, traits that are assumed to be incompatible with sensuality, such as intelligence,” explains Brown. This was evident, she adds, in an experiment that gave some elementary-age girls a Barbie Fashion doll for just five minutes, and a Mr. Potato Head to others. The career aspirations reported to the researchers by the former were more limited than those of the latter, who played with a non-sexualized doll.

Em 2017 , a group of researchers analyzed the ten most popular TV shows among white and Latina girls aged six to 30 years of age in the US. They found that although only 49% of the characters were girls, 2017 % of the time they were presented in a sexually objectified way (the proportion did not vary between whites and Latinas). The work, funded by the University of California, pointed to at least three occurrences of sexualization per episode, totaling 770 scenes in the entire sample analyzed.

“Sexualization is associated with negative consequences for girls’ mental and physical health (…) Although sexualized clothing was the most common form of sexualization in children’s programs, a wide range of sexualizing content was gift. Instances of sexualization included sexualizing comments, body exposure, self-sexualizing physical activities and behaviors, sexualizing physical behaviors toward others, verbal and physical objectification, and body/appearance modification. These findings suggest that sexualization is present in children’s media popular among Latino and white girls and that identifying ways to combat this influence should be a priority.”

Although girls tend to be more directly sexualized by the media, the effects are harmful for both sexes, also extending to the medium and long term.

In the decade of 78, the psychologist Albert Bandura described the theory of social learning, stating that the human being observes the actions of others and , then develops similar behaviors. “Most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from the observation of others, an idea is formed of how new behaviors are performed and, on later occasions, this information code serves as a guide to action,” he wrote in his book Social Learning Theory. Social, in free translation), published in 1977.

In this sense, imitating the adult world – reproducing from the professions even the behaviors they see on a daily basis – it’s part of children’s development. The problem arises when the type of content they access is not compatible with their age. “Today, there is a mismatch between the psychosexual maturity of young children and the sexual information they are routinely exposed to,” says Diane Elizabeth Levin, PhD in Sociology of Education and known for her work on the effects of media on children.

This is because children’s psychosexual awareness and understanding is a gradual construction, which begins with sensory experiences such as kisses and hugs, through learning to refer to themselves as boys or girls, around of 16 months. “When children are young, we must lay the groundwork for later healthy sexual relationships. We do this by providing them with role models of caring and affectionate relationships. We can also answer questions about issues such as physical differences between men and women or ‘where do babies come from’. However, kids today are bombarded with large doses of sexually explicit content that they can’t process and that is often scary,” details Levine ), in an article published in the book ‘The Sexualization of Childhood’ .

Among the author’s examples is a seven-year-old American girl who wanted to go on a diet and was caught by her mother crying for not having the “sexy” body of a classmate. gang. Levin also reports that she was approached by an experienced educator of 5th and 6th graders, concerned about a classroom argument between a group of boys. “She was talking about sex as an expression of deep affection between partners in a relationship. One of her students, Gabe, challenged her saying, ‘Well, you don’t have to like the person. I saw sex on the Internet. My cousin showed me. They just do it because it’s fun, they like it.’ Some boys seemed surprised, but some others said that they had also seen sex on the Internet”, he says.

For the author, “clearly exposure to sexual content in childhood will influence the adolescent’s behavior” and, in the future, of the adult. One of the reasons is that children focused on understanding mature sexual content fail to dedicate themselves to tasks that are appropriate for the healthy development of their age. In addition, says Levine, engaging in early sexual behavior ends up resulting in situations that can undermine the ability to have healthy relationships in adulthood.

“To address concerns about adolescent sexual behavior, we need to start with a better understanding of the factors that are shaping their ideas about gender. , sexuality and interpersonal relationships. We also need to understand how the ‘casual sex epidemic’ relates to other aspects of their lives. An essential starting point for developing this This understanding is through an examination of the vastly expanded role of media and commercial culture in children’s lives over the past three decades,” argues Levin.

Difficulty in control

The latest report from the EU Kids Online network – which collected data from children aged nine to 38 years in 21 European countries, between 2017 and 2019 – revealed a substantial increase in the proportion of children using smartphones and the internet, compared to the previous survey, of 2010. The time children spend online has almost doubled in many countries: it went from about one to three hours a day in Spain, and from two to three and a half hours in Norway.

About a quarter of the ears reported having had negative experiences online in the last year (which is not necessarily related to sexual content). Between half and a quarter of children communicated online with people they didn’t know. The percentage of young people aged nine to 16 years old who reported having seen some type of of sexual image in the last year ranged from 21% (France) to 50% (Serbia). The highest prevalence was among boys and older children; and the internet was the most common means of exposure than traditional media (such as television, movies and magazines).

In times of social networks it is even more difficult to measure the reach of harmful content about children. “Providing an estimate of the time children spend online is not an easy task. As noted, having a smartphone ‘always at hand’ means that children’s internet use has become continuous and interstitial, filling in the gaps between daily activities”, analyzes the report.

The American Psychological Association states that “virtually all forms of media studied provide ample evidence of sexualization,” which includes television, music videos, song lyrics, movies, magazines, sports media, video games, the internet, and advertising.

“Parents can contribute to sexualization in a variety of ways,” warns the APA, including actions such as “conveying the message that maintaining an attractive physical appearance is the most important goal,” “allowing or encouraging plastic surgery” and even buy clothes or accessories designed to make children attractive and sensual.

The latest edition of the TIC Kids Online Brazil survey, which aims to generate evidence on Internet use by children and adolescents (between 9 and 16 years) in the country, points out that at least half of the interviewees’ children (49% said yes and 6% did not know) had contact with age-inappropriate advertising on the internet. The survey also listened to children and adolescents: 76% said that parents advise them not to see some content and % use blocking filters; 38% reported having asked for some clothes or shoes and 13% makeup and beauty products, after contact with advertising, and 35% of parents bought the requested items.

“It’s one thing for a child to play with their mother’s makeup, lipstick, apply foundation powder, paint their eyebrows, make a mess with dresses, with their mother’s shoes. Another thing is to have a party at a hairdresser or limousine, which will promote the overestimation of these behaviors. Make them act like adults and put on high heels, branded clothes and start to overvalue this world of appearances, of consumption”, warns pediatrician Daniel Becker in an interview on YouTube.

Another serious situation, in his opinion. of the doctor, is to expose children as “fashion hangers”, in advertisements for clothes, toys and food. s and parents to make money, exposing these kids to a world that is too toxic for them, from celebrity easy ade, of empty fame. A world of extreme consumerism, extreme futility, extreme materialism, which is not a healthy world for children”, he emphasizes.

What parents can do

Psychologist Roseana Barone Marx explains that human development follows a natural line that does not change, regardless of the sociocultural context. “A child sits at six months, walks at one year and talks at two. This happened with Cabral, with Aristotle and with all of us”, she exemplifies. “At two or three years old, the child starts to realize that mom and dad are different and, depending on the sex, the psychosexual identity is formed. This opens the child to the relational world and she starts to play with peers like her, a girl or a boy, and the game itself becomes more similar to what she is as an identity. In other words, the identity happens naturally”, she says.

If, around eight or nine years old, sexuality “falls asleep” and the child’s interest is to play, the logotherapist remembers that, After this phase, boys and girls begin to attract each other, but still in a shameful way, until later they open up to relationships. “This very sexualized environment, bringing behaviors from the later stage to the young child, brings a shock to the child. We think it’s beautiful, precocious, claps our hands, and the child wants prestige and responds, but that doesn’t suit their nature. She gradually acquires behaviors and discoveries that frighten at an unconscious level”, he points out.

Despite the hyperstimulation, the child is not able to respond to it. walk, he doesn’t walk away. The line of development is natural and doesn’t change, the standard deviation is very small, he doesn’t skip five or six years. The child is capable of repeating sexualized things, without knowing what it is about. And this can bring all kinds of difficulties, such as lack of self-acceptance and depression, we see depressed children”, she laments.

To deal with this hypersexualized context, the psychologist guides parents to form values in the children, helping them to make good choices in situations outside the protection of the family. so parents and school need to help create It encourages you to look like the one who has behaviors of the right age, not the other way around”, he teaches.

Being close to children in moments of play and guiding them, in the phases when they begin to touching each other is essential so that their sexual identity is not confused and to protect them from abuse. “When such damage happens, sexuality is interrupted in the line of development”, laments Roseana.

As for the smartphone, the tip is not just to guide or supervise, but to “stay together” . That’s because even a simple search, for something commonplace, can end up leading to erotic content. “It is necessary to stay together and teach the child to discriminate. Only the very small cannot discern this. The older ones, if they understand that it is not good for them, will know how to say no, if these values ​​are formed”, she guarantees.

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