Page last updated at 03:24 GMT, Friday, 26 February 2010

'Why can't I look like that?' ask teenagers

By Margaret Ryan
BBC News

Teenagers talk about the pressures they face around image and sex

Children in the UK are being exposed to an increasing amount of "sexualised material" in the media which their parents do not always know about, says a new report.

But are boys and girls feeling the pressure to become sexualised at an earlier age - and what do parents think about it?

For Jess, 16, from Sheffield, the pressure from what she sees in all sorts of media is all too real.

"I see someone who is thin, has big boobs," she says.

"They have got all the curves in the right places. I think why can't I look like that? It makes me feel so low."

Katie Price
Celebrities like Katie Price are 'perfect' says teenager Rebecca

And it makes her want to look like that one day because, she says, "most guys" like a girl who is "plastic".

"It makes me feel quite rubbish when I see in magazines woman all airbrushed and made to look perfect. It makes me feel that I don't look perfect, that I don't look good in any way."

Not all girls say the images make them feel bad about themselves.

Rebecca, 15, says: "I don't personally feel any pressure to look good because I am not worried about my weight. I am happy as I am."

But even she says that when she sees airbrushed pictures she thinks "why don't I look as pretty as that" and that people change the way they look to make themselves more closely resemble the likes of celebrities Cheryl Cole and Katie Price.

"They are just perfect, "she says.

According to the Home Office study, written by Dr Linda Papadopoulos, girls are sold the idea they have to look "sexy" and "hot" and this leads young people to be more likely to have poor self-esteem, depression and eating disorders.

It also suggests there may be a link between increasing sexualisation and violence.

And it calls for tougher regulation of sexual imagery, that so-called lads' magazines be sold only to over-16s and that children learn that images are routinely digitally altered.

'Lock up your daughters'

Parents welcome these issues being discussed more widely, according to Siobhan Freegard, founder of the website netmums.

She says parents struggle with what they should allow their children to do.

"Parents do worry about too much too young," she says. But she adds the issue is bigger than considering what should be advertised to children.

If she lets her 10-year-old daughter listens to Lily Allen songs with "unsuitable" lyrics, she asks "How complicit does that make me?"

A snapshot survey this week by the parenting website of 3,500 mothers on what they would let their daughter do before the age of 10 seemed to show that women were strict on their children, she says.

I see someone who is thin, has big boobs. They have got all the curves in the right places. I think why can't I look like that?
Jess, 16

While 73% of those who opted to take part in the website's research would let their daughter paint their nails, only 15% would let them wear a crop top and 10% would let their children watch reality TV shows.

As a mother-of-three she believes parents have a role in countering this sexualised material by building self-esteem. But she thinks it is difficult to block what material children can access.

"If you make Nuts magazine for over-16s you are just going to make it the most desirable object," she says.

As to whether children are being sexualised earlier, she says: "It has probably been going on for generations but it seems very obvious with multimedia. It is very difficult to control now. You used to be able to lock up your daughters."

While parents welcome guidelines, she said many draw the line at "eroding personal decision".

Lads' magazines
Concern has been raised about lads' magazines being too easily available

David Webster, of the Association of Educational Psychologists, thinks the sexualisation of young people is probably happening at an earlier age and the media has a role to play.

"You ask them [young people] 'what do you what they want to do?' and they say they want to be on a reality TV programme like Britain's Got Talent."

He says there is a difference in pressures facing boys and girls.

"Boys will brag that they are sexually active even when they aren't and that puts pressures on other boys. For girls it is more about being glamorous."

The report, commissioned by former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, says the onus falls as much on the media and advertisers as parents.

Media 'scapegoat'

Caroline Cocoran, deputy editor of teenage girls' magazine Sugar, says: "We have a huge responsibility to teenagers and are constantly aware of that responsibility. We don't airbrush figures to make them look thinner."

In every issue of the magazine, which has a readership of 13-16-year-olds, there are girls of all shapes and sizes modelling clothes.

"We don't mention diet. We promote being happy with yourself.

"We do features about confidence, the importance of friendships and doing well at school.

"Teenage girls have always been worried about their appearance. But with the internet a lot of things seem to be a lot more prevalent".

Selling a fantasy

While the magazine accepts its responsibilities she says: "I don't think the media is responsible for the sexualisation of young teenagers. It is being used as a scapegoat for what is a cultural thing."

The report says children and young people need to understand a magazine is "selling a fantasy".

But, for Jess, the pictures in her mother's celebrity magazines are compelling. She sees photographs of celebrities, which she does not think have been airbrushed.

"They still have perfect figures," she says.

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