Bishop Makes YouTube Appeal to Combat Sexualization of Children

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:06pm EDT

( - (Editor's note: adds comment from lobby group, advertising standards authority)

( - In a new effort to raise awareness about the sexualization of children in the media and marketplace, a senior Australian churchman has turned to the popular online video-sharing site YouTube to decry the issue and call for a national inquiry.

The bombardment of advertising aimed at children carries a cost, Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier said in a message read against a backdrop of advertising images, magazine covers and children's faces.

He cited climbing levels of chronic depression and eating disorders among children and adolescents.

"Children have a right to their childhood, but we're stealing it away. The result is children obsessing about their body image and fashion, and young people becoming caught up in a culture of sex, drugs and violence," Freier said. "The best Christmas present we can give our children is a release from these pressures."

Freier asked viewers to support his call for a national inquiry into "the state of childhood in Australia." (see video)

In an op-ed article published this week, the archbishop criticized media and advertising depicting "idealized, airbrushed images that project unrealistic body shape expectations." In stores, he said, children "are tempted by make-up, underwear and clothes designed to convince little girls that, long before they reach puberty, they need to project themselves as 'hot.'"

Freier's appeal comes amid growing concern in Australia

An annual survey of young people by a Christian charity, Mission Australia, released early this month, found that one in three of the 29,000 respondents aged 11-24, both male and female, cited body image as a major concern.

Spokeswoman Anne Hampshire said the body image concern had risen since the organization's previous survey.

"Across all three age groups (11-14, 15-19 and 20-24) body image was a major issue for at least 30 percent of respondents," she said. "As a community, we should all be concerned by these results."

The Australian Psychological Society published a guide in October aimed at helping parents deal with the challenge.

The society encouraged parents to teach daughters to value themselves for who they are rather than how they look, and to provide healthy role models - those "who have become heroes not because they are rich or thin, but because they have demonstrated more positive values."

Girls should also be encouraged to participate in activities emphasizing skills and abilities over physical appearance, it said.

Melinda Tankard Reist, director of the Women's Forum Australia think tank, has called for an urgent approach by government and the community, including a "crackdown" on outdoor advertising.

"Positive body image programs in schools should be mandatory, teaching media literacy skills that help young people recognize damaging messages from popular culture," she said.

'Action needed'

Melbourne mother Julie Gale earlier this year launched a non-profit lobby called Kids Free 2B Kids, and said the campaign has drawn support from thousands of people, across the country and around the world.

"Our children have become commodities - something to make a quick buck out of - and they are suffering the consequences," she said Wednesday.

Gale said she wholeheartedly supported Freier's call for an inquiry but added that there was already sufficient research and recommendations from experts and what was now needed was government action.

Businesses should be held accountable for the images and merchandise they are marketing to children, she said.

"I don't believe voluntary codes of conduct or self regulation in the advertising industry works. The Australian advertising industry is failing our children," Gale added.

Australia's Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) considered complaints about more than 520 media advertisements in 2006, dismissing 91 percent of them.

Less than three percent of the complaints dealt with alleged violations of a code for advertising to children.

The code says ads aimed at children should not mislead or deceive, should not undermine parents' authority or status, should not suggest that those who have a product are superior to others, and should not encourage an inactive lifestyle or unhealthy eating or drinking habits.

It does not deal directly with sexualization but says that ads "must not portray ... unsafe situations which may encourage children to engage in dangerous activities."

Gale said the code was too limited, in that it does not cover the impact of the sexualization of children.

"I have been saying all year that the ASB does not reflect prevailing community standards [on this issue]," she added.

The ASB said in a statement it has recently carried out research to determine whether its findings are in line with community standards.

The research showed that the Australian community showed a greater tolerance for politically incorrect ads when coupled with humor but was more conservative than the ASB when it came to sex, sexuality and nudity.

The ASB board would be taking the results of the research into account in the consideration of future complaints, having "already discussed the need for its decisions to more accurately reflect the community's standards," said chief executive officer Fiona Jolly.

See also:
'Children Harmed by Too Much TV, Exploitative Advertising' (May 19, 2004)

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