Protecting Children in a Consumeristic World

New Report Urges Changes in Media and Retail Sectors

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JUNE 12, 2011 ( The commercialization and sexualization of children has reached a level where measures are needed to protect them.

This was the conclusion of a report published June 6 in England. Reg Bailey, the first male chief executive of the Mothers’ Union, was appointed by the Department for Education to lead an independent review of the pressures upon children, and to make recommendations.

He conducted interviews with a large number of parents, along with in-depth research of the issues involved. As well, submissions were made by 120 businesses and organizations.

Releasing his findings, Bailey commented: “I want to put the power back in parents’ hands so they can better manage the pressures on their children and make it easier for them to bring up their children the way they want.”

The report, titled “Letting Children Be Children: the Report of an Independent Review of the Commercialization and Sexualization of Childhood,” identified four key themes that were of particular concern to parents and the general public.

Theme 1 was called the “wallpaper” of children’s lives, by which it meant the increasingly sexualized culture in which children are living. Many parents reported feeling that this culture is often inappropriate for their children.

Theme 2 was about the clothing, products and services for children. The report acknowledged that these issues are often not clear-cut.

Theme 3 centered on the subject of children as consumers. They are under pressure from many sources to act as consumers. While the objective is not to cut them off from the commercial world the report noted that parents complained about companies that pushed the boundaries in their advertising.

Theme 4 related to making parents’ voices heard. Sometimes parents lack the confidence to speak out on the issues covered by the report, and other times they feel that businesses don’t pay attention to their concerns.

The answer

In trying to determine how to react to these problems the report noted that there are two very different approaches that can be taken.

The first one favors trying to keep children wholly innocent until they are adults by isolating them from any negative influences or eliminating the pressures completely.

The second reaction tends to accept the world for what it is and concentrate on helping children navigate their way through it.

The report concluded that neither approach is realistic. Instead a combination of the two is preferable. This means taking steps to limit the tendency to ever greater commercialization and sexualization, and also helping children understand and cope with the potential dangers they are exposed to.

The report also stated that the first responsibility lies with parents. “For us to let children be children, we need parents to be parents,” it said. At the same time business and the media have to be more family friendly.

In fact, the report observed that some parts of the business world and the media seem to have lost their connection to parents. “We believe that there is a strong sense that broadcasters are at times actively working against parents,” the report stated.

One example of this is the concern expressed by parents that the television programs people have traditionally considered as family viewing, such as talent shows and soaps, are starting to include increasingly sexualized content.

This pushing of the boundaries is even more of a problem in some areas of the new media where there is little regulation, the report noted. Adult-only material is easily accessed on the Internet and through video-on-demand and via mobile phones.

Among the main recommendations of the report were the following.

— Put age restrictions on music videos to prevent children buying sexually explicit videos, and to guide broadcasters on when to show them. Music videos were singled out by contributors to the review carried out during the report’s preparation and have also been a major issue in past reports on the media. Concerns centered on the sexual and violent nature of song lyrics and the highly sexualized, verging on explicit, dance routines.

— Cover up sexualized images on the front pages of magazines and newspapers so they are not in easy sight of children. Magazines and newspapers with sexually explicit images on their covers should be covered in modesty sleeves, and all outlets should be strongly encouraged to adopt an appropriate display of their publications

— Customers should be invited to make a decision when they buy as to whether they want adult content on their home Internet, laptops or smart phones, rather than receiving it automatically. This will make it easier for parents to protect their children.

— Retailers should offer more age-appropriate clothes for children and sign up to a code of practice regarding the design, buying, display and marketing of clothes, products and services for children.

— Outdoor advertisements should be restricted from containing sexualized imagery where large numbers of children are likely to see them, for example near schools, nurseries and playgrounds. When considering placement of advertisements with sexualized imagery near schools, restrictions should apply in the same way as they already do for alcohol advertisements.

— Give greater weight to parents’ views than to the views of the general public in regulating pre-watershed TV. The watershed, currently set at 9 P.M., is the time before which certain adult programs should not be broadcast; it was introduced to protect children. Therefore, the pre-watershed programming should be developed and regulated with a greater weight for the attitudes and views of parents, rather than viewers as a whole.

— Provide parents with one single Web site to make it easier to complain about any program, advertisement, product or service.

— Ban the employment of children under 16 as brand ambassadors and in peer-to-peer marketing, and improve parents’ awareness of advertising and marketing techniques aimed at children.


Reactions to the report were generally positive. Prime Minister David Cameron came out in favor of a Web site for parents to report problems, the BBC reported June 6.

He also backed the recommendation to make blocking Web and mobile-phone pornography easier.

Cameron announced that he will hold a summit in October to see what progress is being made in the matters brought up by the report. He will invite retailers, advertisers, and representatives from the different media outlets to participate.

Regarding the complaints about inappropriate children’s clothing the British Retail Consortium announced stricter guidelines, the BBC reported.

The consortium’s director of public affairs, Jane Bevis, said the guidelines provide reassurance for parents that companies are concerned about what children wear. So far nine retail chains have announced they will follow the guidelines.

Not all were convinced that the report went far enough. In fact, the organization for which Bailey works, the Mothers’ Union, was critical, the Telegraph newspaper reported June 6.

“We cannot agree with the review that a purely consensual approach will be the most effective and that further regulation or legislation would necessarily disempower parents,” said Rosemary Kempsell, the organization’s president.

She called for a greater degree of government intervention, saying that we should not be afraid to challenge industry when the welfare of children is at stake.

Time will tell if voluntary restraint, plus continued pressure from the public, will be sufficient to curb the problems highlighted by the report.

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