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Abercrombie & Fitch, the American clothing retailer infamous for its highly sexualized and occasionally racist advertising, recently revised the description on its Abercrombie Kids‘ line of triangle bathing suit tops  from “push-up” to “lightly padded.” (Watch CNN coverage of this subtle marketing shift here.) Asking why girls and pre-teens need to push up what they don’t actually have seems kind of pointless when you look at the image they’ve chosen to illustrate the swimwear line: a headless, extremely thin young woman with boobs. Nothing girlish about that body.

And that’s exactly the point.

These “lightly padded” string bikini tops are all about giving the illusion of boobs. Apparently this is desirable in third grade, because that’s who is being targeted. Abercrombie is a repeat offender here; in 2002, they bowed to public pressure and pulled a line of girls’ bikini and thong underwear printed with slogans like “eye candy” and “wink wink.”

It’s easy to point a finger at Abercrombie, but it’s clearly not just them. A recently released study of children’s clothes for sale in 15 popular U.S. stores found a full 30% qualified as sexualized (meaning it emphasized a sexual body part, had characteristics associated with sexiness or had sexually suggestive writing).

Why is this a problem? Well, it teaches kids that their own bodies should be judged by the narrow standards of others – according to very rigidly defined ideas of beauty and desirability. This kind of self-identification is consistently linked with depression, low self-image, low self confidence and body dissatisfaction. Kids learn that their bodies are for the pleasure of others — but only if they fit into these very strict, highly idealized parameters.

It also encourages kids to display their bodies in sexual ways years before they have the maturity, judgment and experience to handle to responses they will generate from others.

The American Psychological Association published a report in 2007 on the “broad and increasing problem of the sexualization of girls,” in which they listed the potential areas of negative fallout: cognitive and emotional consequences, mental and physical health, sexual well-being, attitudes and beliefs, impact on others and on society.

Among their recommendations, they suggest parents and educators use instances of sexualized ads and articles of clothing to talk to their kids about what they see. They also suggest positive alternatives to sexualization, including a focus on physical fitness, intelligence, cultural diversity and social sensitivity. Finally, it makes sense for parents to speak up when they see something objectionable in a store.

References: Goodin S et al (2011). “Putting on” sexiness: a content analysis of the presence of sexualizing characteristics in girls’ clothing. Sex Roles; DOI 10.1007/s11199-011-9966-8


This fabulous article from Common Sense Media (one of my favourite non-profit sites for frank reviews of movies, TV shows, books and music for kids and teens) tracks one woman’s efforts to figure out what information is given away when her 12-year-old daughter plays and does homework online.

Christina Tynan-Wood writes about her decision to allow her pre-teen to have an account on Facebook, despite that site’s policy of only allowing those 13 and over to legally open an account. She isn’t alone – it’s an issue I’ve struggled with as well. Like Tynan-Wood, I felt that saying no to Facebook had a social impact for my twin daughters. And as I discuss in this article, allowing them on the social media website with strict rules and supervision meant I could help them make sense of it while they were young enough to still listen to their mom.  According to Consumer Reports, 7.5 million Facebook users are under 13. 

One practical impact of the parental decision to allow our kids on Facebook is the massive amount of information these (and other) sites are able to collect about their activities online. 

It’s the social networking sites, though, that give me the most pause. It might not seem like a big deal: She installs a silly app, plays a game, “LOLs” on photos, posts a picture, announces what she’s doing, creates a fake job, and “marries” her classroom crush. She’s having a blast.

But the apps aren’t really free. She often “pays” for them by allowing access to her — and sometimes her friends’ — profiles. Add this to the information that she and her friends willingly provide, even the fact that they’re friends, and collect it all into a dossier, and you’d have quite a portrait of my little girl and her crew. The companies that collect this data claim that they never connect this information to individuals, and Facebook prohibits app makers from transmitting data to outside companies — but large breaches have happened.

And what happens when my baby isn’t a baby anymore? Will “the machine” have created a detailed analysis by then of what sort of employee, insurance risk, or student she’ll be? Will it understand that she was playing around when she claimed to work at IHOP? Will it know that the girls didn’t understand what it meant when they called each other prostitutes? Will it strip these games of context, feed it to a database as fact, and sell it to credit companies, insurance agencies, employers, colleges, marketing firms, or the highest bidder? That sounds paranoid. But there have been so many mistakes, break-ins, breaches, and accidents in the world of data collection that the CEO of Sony recently announced publicly that he can’t guarantee the security of Sony’s video game network or any other Web system in the “bad new world” of cybercrime.

These are really important questions. We tend to be kind of laid-back about it because we can’t really see it happening on the surface, but the sheer amount of information collected about our kids is staggering. How will this affect them when they are 25? 40? The answer is we don’t really know. But clearly crossing our fingers and hoping for the best isn’t the best reaction.

The first response is awareness, among both parents and their kids. The second is education. How can we fine tune our security settings and firewalls? What kinds of information should never be given out online? How can we stay on top of the information about us and our children that is out there on the web? These are important questions to have with your kids from the time they are old enough to open their first Club Penguin or Moshi Monsters account. These are some of the questions I’ll be looking at in depth in future posts, and I welcome any comments or suggestions from readers.

Great article on Alexandra Robbins’ new book about the social dynamics of high school, called latest book, “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School” (Hyperion). Reassuring words for any parent or kid concerned they aren’t popular enough — geeks are particularly likely to be successful after graduation.

In her latest book, she follows the lives of high school archetypes — like the Loner, the New Girl, the Nerd and the Band Geek — plus one Popular Bitch, the Paris Hilton of her upstate New York high school.

Their stories beautifully demonstrate things we know intrinsically: that being popular is not always the same as being liked, that high school is more rigid and conformist than the military, and that the people who are excluded and bullied for their offbeat passions and refusal to conform are often the ones who are embraced and lauded for those very qualities in college and beyond — what Ms. Robbins has dubbed Quirk Theory.

She also talks about the exhausting work of cultivating an maintaining popularity in high school, and the curious and unprecedented ways this has been magnified by Facebook:

“Facebook is now the online cafeteria,” Ms. Robbins says. “It’s this public space, largely unsupervised, and it mirrors the cafeteria dynamic where you walk in and have to find a place to belong. At school, you have to pick a table. Well, on Facebook you not only have to pick a table, you have to pick who’s at your table and who’s not. And then kids feel they have to be publicists for themselves, maintaining their photos and status. It’s exhausting.”

Food for thought, especially from an ex-geek like me…

Insert sigh of relief here.

A newly released study of U.S. teens found that they tended to be skeptical of sex information found online, preferring to learn more from parents or friends.

Researchers at New York’s Guttmacher Institute, which tracks public sex education in the U.S. and abroad, talked to 58 teens age 16 to 19 to find out where they get information on contraception and how much they trust it. While most teens in the survey had talked to friends about safe sex, only about one-third said they’d been exposed to contraception information online, and most were “wary” of the accuracy of information from both sources.

 “There’s this assumption that teens are these blank slates and just uncritically absorb the information that’s given to them,” said Rachel Jones, a senior research associate and lead author of the paper. “Our expectation, not just with the Internet but in a variety of forums, was that teens are a little more critical of information.”

Read more:

According to everyone’s favourite non-newspaper The Onion, emerging adulthood never ends, and the U.S. is down to its last 104 adults. Like most jokes, what makes this funny is that it’s kind of true. Postponing the real responsibilities of adulthood is a serious North American trend:

“According to recent data, the grown-up population has plummeted dramatically since 1950, when a Census count found that more than 24 million Americans could both admit when they were wrong and respect a viewpoint other than their own. Today, only one in three million citizens can provide thoughtful advice to a fellow human being instead of immediately shifting the topic to their own personal issues or what they had for lunch.” (The Onion)

Sound like anyone you know?