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Children robbed of their childhood

Mothers’ Union campaigns against commercialisation of childhood

Retailers are robbing young people of their childhood by making them feel valued for what they own and not for what they are. That’s the claim of the Mothers’ Union (MU), whose campaign against the commercialisation of childhood is putting pressure on business to change advertising practices.

The MU’s campaign, ‘Bye Buy Childhood’, aims to challenge children, parents, guardians and families to think about consumer habits. But the MU also want to engage with ‘the commercial world’ and ‘challenge instances of inappropriate marketing or selling’.

The MU says that ‘childhood has become a marketing opportunity’ worth £99m annually in the UK.

‘Are children allowed to be children?’ asked Fleur Dorrell, head of faith and policy for the MU. She told the Friend that, while both children and adults are targeted by advertisers, ‘children are more vulnerable’.

As an example, the MU’s report points to ‘advergames’ on the internet, which ‘draw children to a product or brand through interactive entertainment, taking advantage of the fact that younger children in particular are less able to distinguish between what is advertising and what is core content’.

The ‘Bye Buy Childhood’ report accuses retailers and advertisers of encouraging children to pressurise their parents into spending money. The MU suggests that the culture of consumerism can make people feel like ‘bad parents’ if they do not spend lots of money on their children.

A number of campaigners have welcomed the MU’s stance, but some have warned that the problem of consumerism should be placed in the context of wider issues of economic injustice.

‘The commercialisation of childhood reflects a society with a growing gap between rich and poor, where we are all valued by what we own and driven to consume more and more,’ said Liam Purcell of Church Action on Poverty.

He told the Friend, ‘We need to challenge the structures that keep us all trapped in this way, and build a society where everyone is valued equally.’

The use of sexual imagery in advertising is one focus of the MU’s campaign. Fleur Dorrell told the Friend that ‘sexualisation is something we’re very concerned about’. The MU refer to cases of ‘goods aimed inappropriately at children, such as pole-dancing kits, Playboy-branded goods and padded bikini tops’.

A Home Office review last year reported ‘a dramatic increase in the use of sexualised imagery in advertising’ as well as ‘a significant increase in the number of sexualised images of children’. A campaign called ‘Let Girls be Girls’ was launched by Mumsnet, a networking website for parents. They say that a growing number of toys, clothes and accessories ‘encourage children to enter the world of adult sexuality’ too early.

The MU say that ‘concern about the effect of this on children unites a broad spectrum of people, from conservatives to feminists’. But criticisms of ‘sexualisation’ have sparked a negative reaction from the feminist writer Laurie Penny. ‘“Sexualisation” is a troubling piece of cultural shorthand,’ insisted Penny in response to the Mumsnet campaign. ‘It suggests that sexuality is something that is done to young women, rather than something that they can own and control.’

She argues that the problem is not young people’s sexuality in itself, but the way that it is commercialised in ‘a world where our sexual impulses are stolen and sold back to us’.

Quaker children’s author Sally Nicholls told the Friend, ‘Children should be allowed to develop sexually at their own pace, and should neither be made to feel ashamed of their sexual feelings, nor forced to think of themselves as sexual beings before they feel able’.

Symon Hill the Friend, 14 January 2011