Young people today are growing up in a world where sex has never been more accessible. Louise Naughton talks to TV psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos about the lasting effects of our image-obsessed world on children
Sex is everywhere. It hides on our mobile phones in our pockets, screams into our ears through iPods and is always just a click away on the computer. It hits our senses on a near-daily basis. The rapid rise in technology means we live in a world where young people are the expert navigators, with adults invariably one step behind after finding themselves mesmerised by the shiny new equipment but frozen out by their seemingly complex nature. There is no age filter in today's modern world--a fact proven by Jennifer Lopez's crotch-waving dance routine on the so-called family show Britain's Got Talent earlier this year. Children and young people in the UK have never known life without the now all-consuming blanket of technology. As such, they are growing up surrounded by a 'wallpaper' of sexual imagery.
'We have to stop dismembering women in advertising, hyper-sexualising women in video games, giving bit parts to women in teen movies and using women as decorative objects in music videos,' says TV psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos, who has graced the famous TV sofas of This Morning, Big Brother and GMTV through her work studying human interactions and relationships.
Home Office review
Commissioned by the Home Office in 2010 to write a review on the sexualisation of young people, 41 year-old Linda was given the chance to see the world through a child's eyes and stumbled across things that took even this seasoned and celebrated psychologist by surprise.
'More than anything, I was most shocked and saddened by the way that young girls distilled their self-worth down to being desired. We all want to be attractive to the opposite sex, but when it gets to the point where someone's main goal is to be desired, or the only way they can value themselves is when someone else values them, it is very worrying.'
With her strong, unmistakably Canadian accent, Linda is softly spoken but has a passion and fire that is impossible to ignore. A strident feminist, she is not one to mince her words.
Crisis of masculinity
Linda says the constant bombardment of sexual imagery in the 21st century gives young people 'scripts' on how to behave. In a boy's case, it teaches them to be hyper-masculine and, for girls, that they have to be pretty and decorative. Such 'scripts' dictate their day-to-day behaviours and attitudes. Indeed, Shadow Health Minister, Diane Abbott, recently suggested the UK is facing a 'crisis of masculinity' with men being under pressure to live up to 'pornified ideals' and Viagra being used as a party drug and performance enhancer rather than for medical reasons. Abbott claimed a generation of men are 'in transit' and 'unclear' of their social role, and added that more action is needed to help boys see a 'less narrow view of masculinity'.
The effects of pornography
Simply watching pornography isn't the problem, however, says Linda. It is watching pornography that is degrading to women that has 'confused a generation of young people'.
'Evidence shows attitudes towards women change when boys watch this type of porn and girls are also much more likely to accept aggressive behaviour as a result. I see so many girls who tell me guys will pull their hair and that they feel uncomfortable and don't know what to say.'
Similarly, it is not just the aggressive subtext of pornography but what it tells young girls that you can 'fix' yourself from the outside in --something Linda says is a 'fallacy' and the saddest thing of all.
'Years ago if you wanted to be a better person you would make attempts at being kinder, help people, learn another language or become more intelligent; whereas now it is all about getting better hair, becoming slimmer, bigger boobs, tanned skin and longer nails. We are selling this to a generation of women.'
By basing self-esteem solely on appearance, today's young generation are also going to be faced with consequences later on in life, long after they have found their way through the maze of adolescence, honed their career ambitions and raised a family. Linda predicts young people today will reach middle age not knowing who they are or what their beliefs and passions are, coupled with an 'aging phobia' thanks to spending too much time scrutinising themselves in the mirror and comparing themselves to unrealistic, computer-generated images that they can never live up to.
'We will end up with a generation of unhappy adults, unhappy with themselves and their inability to meet their 'decorative' expectations', she says.
Social media explosion
This dependence on image as a measure of identity has stepped up a gear in the past decade, fuelled by the onset of social media and the internet, says Linda. You only have to look at the origins of Facebook to find this out--conceived by Mark Zuckerberg in his college dorm room, he set up the website initially to compare female students' attractiveness. So is regulation the answer? Linda believes it isn't as black and white as some may think but argues websites encouraging self-harm, suicide and anorexia should be regulated 'hands down'--'They are deadly and have no use'.
'Freedom of speech is prioritised over the right to grow up in a healthy environment. If the same sort of stuff that was on the internet was in a book or on the TV or radio, there would be a public outcry. People, very naively, get defensive where the censoring of the internet is concerned, and I don't get that.'
But parents can't rely on outside forces to protect their children from the perils of the internet. Linda tells her daughter that, just as she wouldn't let her walk down the street alone, nor would she allow her to enter the online world without being there to hold her hand.
Making sure there is an open dialogue between parents and children about the dangers of the internet and equipping them with the knowledge of what they can do when faced with something they are uncomfortable viewing is vitally important, says Linda. Simply declaring the internet to be out of bounds will not work in a society where 'online' and 'offline' have merged in an irreversible fashion.
'It is important for parents to be internet literate. They need to know what websites such as Facebook are so they can make an educated decision as to whether their child can use it or not. Parents need to have an approach that equips kids with an understanding of their digital footprint and what they may be exposed to that they may not be ready to see or hear.'
So how can we go about changing the over sexualised culture in which we live?
In essence, it is about women standing up against the 'learned' objectification of the sex and simply saying the words, 'It is not okay'.
'In the same way society said racism isn't cool and homophobia isn't cool, we need to do the same with objectifying women. We need to say treating women in this way is not okay in the same spirit as it is not okay to not recycle.'
While Linda acknowledges that changing societal attitudes towards sex and women is something that is going to take a long time, she notes her surprise that The Sun newspaper's 'Page Three' is still being allowed to continue relatively unopposed.
'The idea that it is 2013 and someone can gawk over a woman's breasts at the same time as reading what the weather is like, and what deals are on in Asda, is ridiculous. It makes me feel uncomfortable when I am sitting next to someone on the bus or at the airport who has that page open, so God knows what a young girl feels like. Although it is not a huge thing, it is part of this drip-drip effect, telling people that it is okay to consume women in this way.'
However, writing in the Guardian in May 2013, 14 lawyers specialising in equality law stated that supermarkets could potentially be sued under sexual discrimination laws for displaying so called 'lad's mags' that feature semi-naked women on the covers. The lawyers--who are part of a feminist campaign to ban the magazines--claim shops that stock such material risk being taken to court for discriminating against or harassing their female shoppers. The news has had a mixed response so far and has no doubt been controversial to say the least; but it has opened up the debate on whether such images have a place in full view of consumers, regardless of sex or age.
While companies such as Talk Talk, Vodafone and Google are showing promising signs of trying to help parents teach their children how to navigate the online space, sadly there seems to be no movement among media companies, including the advertising and music industries, in taking responsibility for the images they unleash on young, impressionable minds.
'We still have a long way to go in this fight,' Linda concludes.