Growing up fast… the sexualization of childhood.

Few people would disagree that children grow up quite quickly in our society today. There are a number of reasons. Some have posited that the use of hormones in food has contributed to the issue. Others point to academic pressures heaped upon children at increasingly early ages. Changing parenting techniques and attitudes contribute. Yet nothing has a greater influence upon the early sexualization of childhood than media and technology.

Just last fall, a colleague of mine posted this on our Beach Cities AEYC Facebook Group:

The images while intentionally selected for their impact I am sure are nevertheless more than convincing. Even within the seemingly harmless world of Disney, one must question why mermaids and princesses look like they do, why love and marriage are considered such universal and appropriate topics for toddlers and preschoolers, and why action figures such as GI Joe have undergone such testosterone-fueled transformation over the past 30 years. Tough Guise (with Jackson Katz), 1999 and Consuming Kids: the Commercialization of Childhood both do a wonderful job of posing questions such as these. For purposes of comparison, the dimensions of a Barbie doll circa 2000 “surpass” those of supermodels while GI Joe’s biceps dwarf those of baseball slugger Mark McGuire’s.

Other media and social media developments have resulted in videos being shared of young children smoking cigarettes, shaking their backsides, and parading in costumes fit for streetwalkers… to and for the amusement of adults and even their own parents.

The challenge for us is that technology has advanced far more rapidly than the social systems and values which would contain it. This will continue to be a problem until we stop and reflect as a society upon the relationship between media and technology and the exploitation and abuse of children.
When I taught elementary school during the late 1980s, I remember that there were already pressures upon the 10, 11 and 12 year olds to begin playing out sexualized gender roles. By the time I had left elementary school for a career in early education, I had attended birthday parties and baby showers for children as young as 13. However, these seemed by all accounts to be authentic efforts on the part of children to enter their adult lives.

Today’s youtube videos are shockingly disturbing in comparison as the behaviors seem to be encouraged by adults and captured for their amusement. Entirely lacking is the authentic participation of the child in an appropriate, even if premature, rite of passage.

Taken as a whole, the media and technology impact upon children is never ending. Photo-shopped beauties grace billboards, their faces seemingly younger and younger. Beauty, even in children’s films (with rare exception such as the Shrek films) is narrowly defined. The results can be devastating – eating disorders, bullying and cyber bullying, depression and suicide. According to James W Prescott, 2002, suicide rates for children 5 years to 14 years doubled between 1979 and the mid 1990s. Prescott also posits that cultures that promote parental nurturing, measured in part by baby-carrying and breastfeeding, of young children have better outcomes for child emotional well-being. Indeed, the factor most closely related to low suicide rates in tribal cultures was breastfeeding beyond 30 months. We, as members of this society and as those working with young children must share some of this responsibility. “Our modern corporate culture has made it difficult, if not impossible, for mothers to be nurturing mothers or for fathers to be caring fathers” (Prescott, 2002).

Clearly American culture, which values child independence over nurturance, would seem susceptible to negative mental health outcomes for children based upon our level of nurturance. In addition, the highly gendered American consumer landscape makes even our young children vulnerable to biased expectations for behavior, exaggerated characterizations of beauty, and expectations to conform to narrowly prescribed societal definitions of beauty, desirability, and worth.

Implications for Early Educators:
As early educators, we are in a position to mitigate the negative effects of the sexualization of childhood.
There are a number of things that we can do in our programs.
Media and Technology:
• Eliminate passive media from our programs.
• Limit access to media technology that may result in children accessing inappropriate information, images and messages.
• Evaluate the books, songs, and images that are in the classroom.
• Programs can provide a private family room or space for breastfeeding children.
• Programs can provide information promoting the value and benefit of breastfeeding.
Nurturing touch:
• Programs can enact policies that encourage nurturing touch between adults and children.
• Programs can enact policies that promote parental participation in ways that emphasize nurturing rather than academic or housekeeping activities.
Male Involvement:
• Programs can promote male involvement, thus providing role models for all children of men that do not emphasize sexualized behavior and are not rewarded for violent behavior.


Prescott, James W. 2002. America’s lost dream: ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ current research and historical background on the origins of love and violence. Institute of Humanistic Science. Lansing New York.


Codes of gender, the identity and performance in pop culture. 2009. Media Education Foundation.

Consuming kids: the commercialization of childhood. 2008. Media Education Foundation

Reviving Ophelia: saving the selves of adolescent girls. 1998. Media Education Foundation.

Tough guise (with Jackson Katz): violence, media, and the crisis in masculinity. 1999. Media Education Foundation.

Media Education Foundation.


2 thoughts on “Growing up fast… the sexualization of childhood.

  1. Caroline says:

    I particularly am drawn to your suggestion of promoting male involvement in early childhood programs so children can see that men are not expected to “emphasize sexualized behavior and are not rewarded for violent behavior”. Stereotypes of the extreme “man’s man” pressure boys to repress emotions, be ashamed of their feelings, and treat women as objects; and push girls to accept such “masculine” behavior as the norm, increasing their risk of putting themselves in abusive situations and also viewing themselves as objects. This creates a void where respect should be for both genders, for themselves and each other.

  2. gregoryuba says:

    I think we are close, as a society, to recognizing the gentler side of men. I love the Budweiser beer commercial that shoes the man whose horse becomes a Budweiser horse. The horse leaves to work at Budweiser. The man learns that the Budweiser horses are visiting and journeys intom the big city to see his horse. As the rpoud man is beginning to leave, the horse recognizes the man and runs to him. It is a heartwarming moment – imaginimng men as loving and nurturing and loving “parents”.

    Can this image of man as nurturer become more than a heartwarming marketing tool? That will depend upon whether other men and women respond to the message as positively as I (and no doubt many other men) did.

    Whether or not the nurturing man can succeed as more than an idea in our society depends upon how women respond. If women see men as nurturers as being strong and manly – then there is hope. If women see nurturing men as weak, then we will continue to flounder.

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