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Page last updated at 10:31 GMT, Monday, 10 January 2011
Is modern life too sexy for our children?

By Sophie Raworth
BBC Panorama

Sexualised clothing aimed at children
A Scottish study found very few sexualised products for children

When my daughter, Ella, turned six last year, she was very excited about a pop music DVD given to her by one of her friends as a birthday present.

She said she'd seen it on children's television and had been talking to her friends about it.

So after much pestering, I sat down on the sofa with my daughter and her younger brother and sister and started to watch it. Pop stars like the Saturdays and Girls Aloud appeared on our screen.

But within minutes I felt deeply uncomfortable. As I watched these videos through the eyes of a young child, I saw heavily made-up girls with huge false eyelashes in really skimpy clothes with lots of cleavage and sexy dance moves. My gut reaction was to switch it off.

But children are surrounded by sexual images all the time - be it on television or the internet, in video games, on billboards or in magazines. They are growing up in a world which seems more and more sexualised.

On Mumsnet, the online parenting forum that has become a political force in its own right in Britain, the sexualisation of children is a hot topic - especially when it comes to some of the clothing.

Young people will come and say things like 'Is it right, do I need to shave all my body hair off?'
Simon Blake, Brook Advisory Centre

Justine Roberts, the website's co-founder, told me that many mothers were worried because they felt their daughters were being encouraged to be sexual in a way they were not mentally able to understand.

"When you present a child with a pair of high-heeled shoes," Justine told me, "it immediately puts her into a posture which makes her look more sexy. I mean her bum will stick out, her non-existent chest will stick out and she will start to sort of teeter around."

Taste debate?

The coalition government has begun a review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of children which will explore, among other things, whether rules should prevent companies marketing the likes of Porn Star T-shirts and padded bras for little girls.

Sophie Raworth
Sophie Raworth presents Panorama: Too Much Too Young, BBC One, Monday, 10 January at 2030 GMT
Or watch it later via the BBC iPlayer

So what is really out there? I trawled the High Street in search of some of these products and I struggled to find very many. There were a few T-shirts with slogans like Future Footballer's Wife, but are they sexualising children or just a matter of taste?

What did make me uncomfortable was what felt like a strong undercurrent of sexuality and glamour that seems to run through many girls' clothing ranges now - mini-versions of adult trends that included strapless or low-cut dresses, sequins, frills and lace.

But who decides what's sexualised and what's trendy? Who gets to be the fashion police?

In Scotland, politicians asked sociologist and mother-of-two Dr Rachel Russell to be part of a team researching the prevalence of these "sexualised" products.

She and her colleagues scoured more than 30 stores and their online sites in Glasgow and they too found very little that they felt was overt.

I asked why she thinks the subject keeps hitting the headlines.

"Children, sex - put them together and it's a textbook moral panic. Who will argue with someone saying we need to protect our children?"

But is our collective fear around sexy or adult clothing in tiny sizes really more to do with the worry that it will lead our children to sexual experimentation at an earlier age?

Our children are growing up in a high-speed world of social networks, unlimited internet access and mobile phones - no generation of teenagers has ever had such freedom to explore the secrets of the adult world on their computers.

Online dangers

The latest research carried out by the London School of Economics reveals that 52% of British children between the ages of nine and 16 have internet access in their bedroom and as many can also access the internet away from home - on mobile devices.

girl in front of window advertising social networking options
Almost half of all teenagers have internet access in their bedrooms

Many of them spend hours on social networking sites like Facebook and MSN chatting to friends but also flirting with strangers, albeit mostly young people of their own age.

Sonia Livingstone, who led the research, says there is growing evidence for concern about some of these online activities.

"I think there's a lot of experimentation going on. And I think a lot of that is about sharing experiences, being in touch, seeing if other people are living the life that you are. And within that there is clearly a lot of flirtation and some degree of sexual experimentation."

According to her research, 12% of 11-16 year olds say they have received sexual messages.

In Blackburn I met Joel, who is 14 and who spends hours in his bedroom online and with 700 Facebook "friends".

Joel's description of how he and his friends use it sounded like an online dating agency for teenagers.

"Some lads take photos with their tops off," he told me, "and girls are like, 'I'll add him, I'll add him.'"

'Gross misinformation'

At his local football club, almost all of his teammates openly told us that they had looked at pornography online.

According to the LSE's latest research, more than 24% of nine-to-16-year-olds said they had seen pornography in the past year, some online but the majority had found it on DVDs, television or magazines.

Teenage kicks and teenage pressure

The Brook Advisory Centre speaks to thousands of teenagers in Britain every year about their sexual experiences. Simon Blake, its chief executive, says porn is providing gross misinformation to young people about their expectations of sex.

"Young people will come and say things like 'Is it right, do I need to shave all my body hair off?'"

So is there anything we can - or should - do to limit exposure of our children to the darker parts of the web?

The Conservative MP Claire Perry thinks so. She wants the government to force broadband companies to cut off adult sites unless households explicitly request them.

That may well help to limit the access, but it won't stop it.

As a parent, I can say no to clothes that I deem inappropriate and sexualised. But my biggest concern is the virtual world that children navigate so confidently now - who they might talk to, where they might go, what they might see.

If there's one message that has come through from all the parents and experts I have spoken to, it is talk to your children, communicate with them and know what they are doing, particularly online. I do hope that by doing just that I can protect them to some extent as they graduate from their childhood innocence to the reality of the very adult world that awaits them.

Panorama: Too Much Too Young, BBC One, Monday, 10 January at 2030 GMT and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.

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