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Parents should closely monitor children's online use

This is the third in a series of articles on the impact of technical and electronic media on families and children.

Q: What are additional risks of technical and electronic media?

A: The exposure of children to inappropriate sexual content takes place in several spheres. This exposure includes sexting, media portrayal of children that is sexualized, advertising and music videos.

Social media sites are not monitored or regulated. They provide vehicles for pedophiles and porn videos highly inappropriate for children. One of the greatest dangers for social media is teenagers seem to be oblivious to the risks of providing identifying information online. Youth usually think they are safe from the risks in the world because they have not yet experienced these events.

In Canada, there has been a 270-percent increase in sexually explicit programs during prime-time evening hours. The portrayal of sexual behaviors as normal and risk-free gives youth messages everyone behaves this way. In the United States, the situation is the same. Adolescents are susceptible to media influence on values, beliefs and attitudes.

Music videos are highly representative of sexuality in the media, often in combination with violence. Lyrics in songs are explicitly sexual. Although there is no research to validate cause and effect between lyrics and adverse behavior in adolescents, common sense tells us the continuous bombardment of explicitly sexual material profoundly affects the perceptions of youth.

The desensitization of children and teens to sexualized material is not limited to music videos. The extent to which sexualized Internet sites interact with children and teens only can be estimated. Unmonitored sites and unmonitored youth make accurate research improbable. Pedophiles and predators contact minors through unsupervised email and chat rooms. The desensitization of sexuality promotes Internet sexual encounters and face-to-face encounters.

A long-term risk pointed out in an article by the American Academy of Pediatrics published in 2011 is that of the threat for youth of digital footprints, the collective, ongoing record of everyone's history on the Internet. Youthful indiscretions posting inappropriate pictures, messages and videos stay online forever. Colleges and employers have started to peruse the Internet backgrounds of youth.

No one can dispute the fact mass media has altered social norms. On-air representations of language and behavior have changed in the past 50 years. Movies also are more explicitly sexual, but television has more effect because the hours viewing programs far exceeds the time spent at the movies. The Internet and television log the most hours of viewing time.

The gender content on television programming has changed through the years. In 1952, most characters in prime-time shows were male. By 1973, that percentage had shown an increase. The National Organization for Women developed a task force to challenge the derogatory depiction of women on television. In 1999, researchers Lauzen and Dozier found 43 percent of main characters on television were women. Women now occupy roles that were traditionally male in business, law enforcement, medicine, law, sports and politics. These changes are reflected in media programming.

In Australia in 2008, the government commissioned a report on the sexualization of children in the media, advertising and the Internet. One of the changes noted in Australia was that the sexualization of children used to occur through exposure to mass media and pop culture. Now, children also are sexualized in the portrayal of children in advertising. Children thus are bombarded by multiple sources representing the early, inappropriate sexualization of children.

The Office of the Child Safety Commissioner in Victoria, Australia, publicly has denounced clothing for children that have sexually suggestive slogans. A public outcry about such clothing in 2008 demonstrated the children's clothing industry was not representative of community attitudes and standards. The fact these clothing items were withdrawn and discontinued only after public outrage demonstrates the children's clothing industry was not capable of responsibly regulating itself.

These inappropriate slogans included "Ms. Floozy, Mr. Well-hung, Mr. Pimp, Mr. Asshole and Naughty butt nice." There were others too vulgar to include in this list. The Australian report believes the sexualization of children puts children at risk in every area of development. The misapplication of sexual images to children presents sexy as good, and young sexy as desirable.

In the United States, there might not be clothing for children with obscene slogans, but there are harmful shows and unmonitored Internet sites that are sexually inappropriate. A good example of a harmful show is the program "Toddlers and Tiaras," in which preschool girls are exploited sexually in beauty pageants, usually by their mothers.

A 2001 Kaiser Family Foundation study found 84 percent of situation comedies contain sexual references and 75 percent of prime-time shows have sexual content. In shows about teenagers in sexual situations, only 17 percent of the programs contained content about responsible and safe sex.

* Next week's article will continue with the risks of technical and electronic media.

Judy Caprez is an associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.