What's Happening to Our Kids?

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WHEN WRITER, PUBLISHER AND SOCIAL researcher and commentator, Maggie Hamilton, presented at the recent Australian Union Conference Union Session, her message was unequivocal: “There is an alarming, established societal trend for children to be the deliberate targets of an aggressive worldwide billion dollar marketing campaign that exploits and damages their innocence and humanity.”

Ms Hamilton immediately caught the absolute attention of every delegate as she summarised the premature sexualisation of children that is occurring right across our nations. She is a sensitive and seasoned campaigner who knows her stuff. Her resume is impressive: senior roles in the ABC and on numerous Australian Government committees; adviser to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet; and an author, whose books have been published internationally. The delegation was impressed, very impressed! At the conclusion of Ms Hamilton’s presentation, actions that proposed to better protect the rights of children were put to delegates.

Unanimous acceptance of these actions was demonstrated by raised arms and, significantly, white balloons a symbol of solidarity for child protection that has spread across Australia and is annually celebrated in the week of the session.

What was it about Ms Hamilton that had such a powerful impact on the delegates? Clearly she is committed and passionate about the best interests of children and young people, and is sensitive to her audience, “speaking the truth in love”. She is also a person who loves to travel to out-of-the-way places. She has a passion for deserts and for wilderness places in general as the perfect antidote to the pressures of city life, and for the art of living meaningfully. Indisputably, at the very heart of her appeal, is her message!

A recent article submitted to the Newcastle Herald captures the essence of that message:

A decade ago families didn’t have access to the internet. There were no kids with camera and video-enabled phones. These advances, along with the overwhelming marketing to kids, have forever changed childhood and teen life. Many parents, teachers, school counsellors, emergency staff in hospitals and police are now run ragged trying to keep kids safe.

If we’re serious about protecting our kids, we need to understand what it’s like to grow up in a world of branded toys and DVDs. By the time many of our children are at preschool, they’re no longer playing at being astronauts or firemen, or whatever they dream up. They’re following the scripts of DVDs they watch endlessly instead. Years before they learn to read or write, our preschoolers are now anxious about their looks and clothing. Their early carefree years are being replaced by small children stressed about whether they have the right branded backpack and lunchbox, the right clothes and hair. These anxieties increase as they grow.

Experts tell us kids need imaginative play, good food, fresh air, the chance to run around and be in nature for their brains to develop. Instead our kids are living more of a battery hen type existence–spending hours inside in front of the TV or the computer. The end result? A generation of kids with shrinking life experiences, fewer friendships across the generations and tenuous links with their local community at best.

In one recent piece of British research into brain development, today’s 11-year-olds were on average two to three years behind 11-year-old kids from only 15 years ago. The fallout from shrinking childhoods is tangible, concerning. We’re now seeing kids as young as seven needing professional help with depression and eating disorders. Almost 4000 children under 10 were prescribed anti-depressants from mid-2007 to 2008. Over 500 of these kids were under five.

As our children live in a performance culture, their whole life is on show and frequently recorded in graphic detail, normalising risky behaviour including sexual behaviour. We’re right to continue to be concerned at how vulnerable our girls are growing up in a highly sexualised world. The fallout is self-evident. Girls as young as 12 are being admitted to sexual assault support units after being gang-raped and filmed. New figures suggest 40 per cent of young Australian girls have had unwanted sex. Sexting is commonplace, and something primary schools are now battling.

While our girls need greater protection and more understanding about the climate they’re in, we can’t ignore the effects this sexualised climate is having on young boys. A steady diet of video games, MTV clips, suggestive ads and billboards, and ready access to porn, don’t encourage boys to see women and girls as anything other than objects. As one clinical psychologist put it, this climate is also abusive to boys as it shuts down their tenderness and empathy, encouraging them to be predators instead.

Alongside these challenges, we’re facing growing mental health issues amongst our teenagers. One in 10 girls in Australia is now self-harming—cutting or slash- ing their skin, pulling their hair out. Body issues remain a major issue for girls. Now increasing numbers of boys are going down the same track as the marketing to boys of everything from fashion items to toiletries intensifies. Bullying is more intense and linked, in part, to the arrival of reality TV, and the psychologically cruel, often humiliating ways in which attention-hungry contestants are treated. In this uneasy world you’re the star one week and gone the next.

Not all kids are out of control, but they’re constantly exposed to those who are. The tragedy is that often parents are the last go-to people because kids see us living in a parallel world, and they’re right. Perhaps the question isn’t so much what’s wrong with our kids, but what’s wrong with us? Our kids don’t need more best friends. They need adults who care about boundaries and giving kids a childhood. Dads also have a crucial role to play in modelling what good men are all about.

Sometimes these issues seem overwhelming, but every generation has its challenges. We must never underestimate the power of engaged parents, teachers and other professionals. It’s important–the future is in our hands, not that of the marketers, who see our kids purely in terms of the bottom line. If we don’t speak out for our kids who will?

Speak out the delegates did as the actions they affirmed reflect:

We, as representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Australia, gathered at the national quinquennial meetings of the Australian Union Conference (September 8, 2010), choose to do all we can to bring an end to inappropriate marketing to young children.

1. We support all current community efforts that seek to provide tighter regulation of age-appropriate material to any children under the age of 12;

2. We call upon community, civil and religious leaders, as well as local, state and federal legislative and regulatory personnel to ensure all efforts are made to end the sexualisation of children;

3. We call upon the Advertising Standards Board to make the necessary changes to standards of practice in media that will better protect the rights of young children;

4. We recommend that the Australian Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists research and produce specialised resources that will assist parents and teachers to deal more effectively with issues regarding the sexualisation of children.

Maggie Hamilton’s books have been published in several countries, and include What Men Don’t Talk About, What’s Happening to Our Girls?, and What’s Happening to Our Boys?

Pastor David Robertson is director of Safe Place Services for the Australian Union Conference.