The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests that the proliferation of sexual images of girls and young women in the media is harming their self-image and development.
An APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls examined research papers covering the effect of all kinds of media content including television, music videos, magazines, video games, the Internet, movies, and music lyrics. They also looked at the way products are sold and advertised to young girls.
The Task Force described sexualization as: "when a person's value comes only from her/his sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics, and when a person is sexually objectified, e.g., made into a thing for another's sexual use."
The report suggests that the volume of sexualized images has increased as more media content exists over a wider range of accessible technologies, leading to increased exposure and pressure on young girls. Attitudes of family members and friends can also increase the pressure.
"We have ample evidence to conclude that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and healthy sexual development," said Dr Eileen Zurbriggen, Chair of the APA Task Force.
"The consequences of the sexualization of girls in media today are very real and are likely to be a negative influence on girls' healthy development," she said.
They gave examples of images from advertising. One featured a well known female pop star, Christina Aguilera, advertising a trainer. She was dressed in school uniform, with an unbuttoned shirt and licking a lollipop.
The report suggests that the sexualization of girls impedes the healthy development of a girl or young woman in several different areas. For example by undermining her confidence and making her feel dissatisfied with her body, this can result in negative self-image and lead to feelings of shame and anxiety.
Also, a body of evidence now links sexualization with several of the most common mental health problems in young women and girls: eating disorders, low self -esteem and depression. And there is also the increased chance that it will impact a girl's ability to develop a healthy sexual self-image.
The Task Force suggests that parents have a strong influence in this area. They could wittingly or unwittingly be contributing to the problem, or they could protect their daughters by educating them and supporting them to overcome the effects of the negative images they come across in their everyday lives.
They call on all members of the community - parents, teachers, school staff, health professionals to look out for the impact that sexual images might be having on the young girls and women in their care. Schools should teach media literacy and include sexualization topics in sex education, they say.
Among their specific recommendations the APA Task Force suggests that:
- More research is done that focuses on girls. Most research focuses on women. An example would be to examine the effects of interventions that promote positive images of girls.
- Practitioners such as psychologists and teachers are given resources to help them teach young girls how to access more positive images of themselves and counteract the negative effects that the sexual images might be having.
- Media literacy programs are developed and that public health reports include sexualization in their agenda.
- Federal agencies support programs that help girls feel powerful in ways other than to look sexy, for example Web zines and extra-curricular activities.
- Develop media awards for positive portrayal of girls as powerful, able and non-sexualized, for example for the best toy or television image.
- Convene partnerships between government, leading experts and the media to work on the issue.
- All members of communities from school staff to business people promote extra-curricular programs that help young people develop self-esteem based on ability and character and not on appearance.
"As a society, we need to replace all of these sexualized images with ones showing girls in positive settings - ones that show the uniqueness and competence of girls," said Dr Zurbriggen.
"The goal should be to deliver messages to all adolescents - boys and girls - that lead to healthy sexual development," she added.