A publication featuring student work from the Department of English and Communications at Salve Regina University.
BY MEREDITH MASON
I t’s a Sunday afternoon, and you decide to head to the mall to complete some last-minute errands before the chaos of the week erupts. As you walk by the perfectly decorated storefronts, you notice that the clothes on the children’s mannequins are looking a lot more like something that belongs in the Victoria’s Secret window display than an outfit your 10-year-old would wear to school. What is scarier than the preteen push-up bras and low-cut tops? Your daughter tugs at your shirt and asks if she can try them on.
Whether it is the magazine rack at the end of the grocery store checkout line, the newest MTV television series or the next billboard Top-100 hit, sex is everywhere. Images and conversations that were once limited to the pornography industry have now become integrated into mainstream media.
According to a study conducted by the American Psychological Association, four components of sexualization set it apart from “healthy sexuality.” The last component, “when sexuality is inappropriately imposed on a person,” is often linked to adolescents because adult sexuality is often “imposed upon them rather than chosen by them,” the task force found. Poor body image, anxiety, depression and eating disorders are just a few of the damages caused by early sexual objectification in teenagers.
Although you may not be able to eliminate these hypersexualized messages from your child’s daily life, steps can be taken to combat these images on your own.
1. Make sure your child learns about sex from you.
The reality is that in a hypersexualized society, your child is probably not going to hear about sex for the first time in a junior-high school health education course. According to a longitudinal study published in the “Journal of Marriage and Family,” teens who have a higher level of communication about the risk of sexual practices with their parents are less likely to engage in early sex practices.
Dr. Debra Curtis, an assistant professor of anthropology at Salve Regina University, believes that parents should begin to introduce these lessons to their children as early as the second grade. “Early on, it is probably appropriate to teach them the proper names for the human body, just so that they don’t pick up the message that the nose is any less taboo than the part below their belly,” Curtis says.
As children mature into adolescents, you should continue to have an open line of communication with them about this topic. Curtis, whose research focuses on how popular culture influences sexuality, says, “You have to get them all the right information.” From the reproductive cycle to birth control, you want to be the one giving the message to your child, not someone else.
2. Communicate your values.
Do you ever feel as though you are talking to a brick wall instead of your teenager at the dinner table? Melissa Henson, the director of grassroots advocacy and education at the Parents Television Council (PTC), says that the best thing to do is talk to your children, even if you don’t think they are paying attention. “Kids listen to you more than you might tend to believe,” Henson says.
According to the “Journal of Marriage and Family,” adolescents who reported having positive communication habits with their parents were less likely to engage in early sexual behavior than those who reported having more negative communication with their parents.
Communicating with your teenagers also means listening to what they have to say. Curtis says that parents need to teach their children to be critical about popular norms. “If they don’t want to go to homecoming when they’re freshmen, they don’t have to,” Curtis says.
3. Parental monitoring is essential.
Although it almost impossible to know what your child is doing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, experts like Curtis and Henson believe that parental monitoring is essential to keeping your child from becoming overly sexualized. “I think that at a young age when their brains are still developing, you want to put controls in place so they don’t end up in situations that are too exciting,” Curtis says. “(Otherwise) it is like driving around without your seatbelt. You’re bound to get into trouble.”
Major parental involvement between the ages of 12 and 16 needs to be in place in order for this practice to be successful. “It’s not just dropping them off at the mall,” Curtis says. This includes everything from calling the parents of the friend’s house your child is visiting to make sure the parents are going to be home to attending events with your child.
Research also supports parental monitoring. According to a longitudinal study, adolescents who are unsupervised less than five hours per week are less likely to engage in early sex practices and have fewer lifetime sexual partners than students who are unsupervised for more than five hours.
4. Keep a close watch on your child’s media consumption
In most cases, your child probably encounters the most sexualized content on the big screen in your living room. The American Psychological Association has determined that children and adolescents spend more time with entertainment media than they do with any other activity except school and sleeping. For media analysts like Henson at the PTC, these statistics confirm that parents need to be active in their children’s media consumption habits.
The PTC advises parents to keep the television set out of children’s bedrooms and in the living room where parents are in the vicinity. “If something comes up on the screen, you have an opportunity to talk with them then and there about what they are seeing,” Henson says.
Parents should also question whether a smart phone is necessary for their child. “As long as they have phones that can make an emergency phone call and reach you… that’s sufficient,” Henson says. “They don’t need to have a smart phone because we know that kids are able to get themselves into a lot of trouble between sexting and the ability to stream video without parental controls.”
Although this level of parental commitment is necessary during the specified ages, Curtis and Henson agree that there is an age when your teens should be ready to navigate on their own. For Curtis, this age is 18 or are seniors in high school. “You don’t just cut them loose at 18 and say OK, here is your first date,” Curtis says. If you give your son and daughter the right information, they can learn to develop their own values instead of letting popular culture decide it for them.