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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 1041

Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (18:59): I rise today to speak on the motion by the member for Kingston on the commercialisation and sexualisation of children, which regrettably is on the increase in Australian society. As a mother, I understand the difficulties that parents face as their children mature and they adjust to both the biological changes and the external pressures that they face to grow up a particular way. I am very committed to working with the community on this issue and to discovering how we can best approach it in the parliamentary context and I thank the member for her motion today. Speaking to the first part of the motion, I acknowledge the findings of the very extensive review in the United Kingdom led by Mr Reg Bailey, entitled Letting children being children. The review involved more than 1,000 parents, who participated in qualitative research, including surveys, interviews and focus groups. It received more than 120 submissions from various organisational and business stakeholders and serves as an important reassessment of an issue that not only affects the UK but should also concern parents throughout Australia. It is a very worrying issue for parents, who want the best for their children and will do everything that they can to ensure that they grow up in a healthy and happy environment.

Sadly, the increasing prevalence of sexualised images and products can be noticed every day when simply walking around clothes shops, with sexualised underwear and swimwear aimed at young girls. One need only open a girls magazine to see 'keep slim' tips and dating advice for 10-year-old girls. We know that the risks of this increasing commercialisation include but are not limited to mental health effects, body image issues, eating disorders and low self-esteem, as this motion suggests. For example, according to the Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria, anorexia nervosa is the third most common chronic illness for adolescent girls after obesity and asthma, and the incidence of this disease has increased over the last two decades. These consequences for the future generations of Australia are of grave concern.

As the review notes, there are two approaches that can be taken when considering the pressures for children to grow up too quickly. The first is restricting the knowledge available to our children so that they are able to remain completely innocent and naive until they become adults. But as parents we must deal with the world as we find it. The second approach is to have a more open dialogue to provide the necessary tools to children so that they can understand what is happening in the world around them as they mature. It is reasonable to suggest that the latter, balanced approach is the better option.

While we want our children to stay innocent by exposing them as little as possible to age-inappropriate issues, we must accept the reality that the increasing instances of commercialisation and sexualisation in the community are affecting the development of children. We have to accept that it is an issue for which we must devise appropriate solutions and which requires constant dialogue in the community. As point (2) of today's motion notes, the thrust of the recommendations in the review is directed at industry and regulators, with government monitoring progress and legislating to protect children if necessary. One particular comment in the response of the education minister to the UK review stuck out for me. Ms Sarah Teather said that it is not enough for businesses to simply comply with the relevant regulatory systems which were established to protect children. Parents expect them to do their best for children, not simply stick to the rules.

As such, as we have seen in the obesity debate, the question is whether it is incumbent upon the government to step in and impose more regulation such as advertising standards on businesses when they are directly advertising to children. This is an important question because, while it would be impossible for a government to stop sexualisation of children completely, we must canvass the options that an Australian government can take to address this issue.

In Australia, the parliament in recent years has undertaken two inquiries: one on billboard and other outdoor advertising in the House of Representatives in 2011 and more specifically one on the sexualisation of children in the contemporary media in the Senate in 2008. The 2008 inquiry report mirrored the UK review's concern about the inappropriate sexualisation and noted that there is an onus on broadcasters, publishers, advertisers, retailers and manufacturers to respond to growing community concerns. The report also made 13 recommendations to the government.

But what was the Labor government's response? The report was published in June 2008. The government did not bother to respond until more than a year later, in July 2009. When they finally decided to read this report on an issue that is very important to the future of Australian families, what action did they take? Essentially, they did nothing. They admitted that there is a problem. They noted the recommendations. In the 2½ years since then, this government has done nothing to address this growing problem.

In Australia, we have systems in place through which these concerns can be raised. For example, the Advertising Standards Board covers complaints regarding both television and billboard advertisements and specific complaints about inappropriately targeted merchandise. More generally, the Kids Free 2B Kids websiteis a very useful resource for parents to help reverse the trend of sexualisation. Without a doubt, this issue is very complicated and solutions to the problem are not always easily identifiable. As such, I would welcome proposals as to how we can best adapt our regulatory system in the future.

One of the ongoing manifestations of the sexualisation of children about which parents in Ryan have spoken to me is a new phenomenon known as sexting, which involves the transmission or publication of sexualised words, images or video via phones, email, the internet or other media. They are also concerned about how this relates to the monitoring of their children's internet use, an area where the rules are constantly changing because there are always new virtual interactions and other social media becoming available.

I want to pay tribute to Mr Brett Lee, an internet safety expert at INESS, Internet Education and Safety Services. Mr Lee, who worked for more than 20 years as a detective for the Queensland police in the field of child exploitation, now gives internet safety and cyberbullying presentations to schools, the community and organisations. I would like to place on record my appreciation for his invaluable contribution to our families and the particular advice he has given to church groups, schools and my electorate generally about how to develop tools for families. One parent told me that, in trying to understand or deal with the sexualisation of their children or monitor their online activity, they are sometimes tempted to put it in the too-hard basket. It is the difficulty in understanding what is going on or where to start that makes them feel helpless. It is easier to just take away their mobile phone or ban the use of computers, even though the parents acknowledge that these are essentially compulsory resources for children today. Fortunately, through the resources of organisations like INESS, parents have been helped to unravel the online world, including at Pullenvale State School, Nudgee Junior College and St Peter's Lutheran College.

As an expert in the field, Mr Lee has remarked that the most important approach we can take is an individual and community based approach and that education for parents and students is the key. From a technical point of view, given the unimaginable scale of the internet or so-called cyber network, it would be impossible to devise a top-down approach that could be applicable to the varying circumstances that families encounter. It is at the home and school level that the community can come together to devise appropriate solutions. Mr Lee encourages parents and their children to have an open dialogue about not only their interaction with other students but also what they see on television and the internet.

Ensuring parents have enough support to help their children is certainly something that the coalition has always made a priority. The Howard government provided free computer based content filters for parents and, at the 2010 election, committed to spending an extra $60 million to develop such technology. It is with this approach that the federal government and indeed the education departments in each state have an opportunity to ensure that adequate resources are provided. Ultimately the family is the fundamental base to work through this issue. While governments can provide assistance, they also need to respect the mixture of solutions present within the community.

What is required on this issue is a truly consultative approach between parents, schools, the community, industry and government. I believe government should consider how this interaction might be facilitated in the school context with a view to assisting parents and children to find their way through what is a challenging, difficult and potentially dangerous area. Never before has so much unregulated material been so easily available to our children—material that promotes sexualisation at a young age and, at worst, material that can lead them into real and serious danger. I would certainly welcome ongoing monitoring of progress in this regard and legislating to protect children, if necessary, in the Australian context.