Is it too much, too soon for children exposed to sexuality?

PARENTAL concern about children being exposed to sexual imagery is nothing new. Madonna's song, Like A Virgin, and the risqué video of her cavorting around Venice, caused an outcry among parents worried about the corrupting influence it might have on innocent eyes.

That was more than 25 years ago and since then there has been a growing clamour demanding an end to the sexualisation of children. This has become increasingly vociferous in recent years after supermarkets were criticised for selling padded bras and child pole-dancing kits.

Earlier this year, Dr Linda Papadopoulos produced a Home Office report calling for tougher regulation of sexual imagery in adverts and recommending that mobile phones and games consoles be sold with parental controls automatically switched on. Her report warned children were being exposed to pornography on mobile phones and big name fashion brands were using sexual imagery to sell clothes aimed at young teenagers.

The Prime Minister David Cameron said he was shocked to find "Lolita" beds for six-year-olds were on sale, and the coalition agreement in May promised "action to protect children from excessive commercialisation and premature sexualisation." As a result retailers may face a code of conduct on what is deemed appropriate marketing following the launch of a Government inquiry, which will decide whether or not new rules are needed to stop the sale of items like "porn star" T-shirts, lap-dancing kits and padded bras to pre-teens.

Children's minister Sarah Teather says there are huge pressures on children to grow up too quickly and buy things that are often totally unsuitable. "I know when I walk down the high street there is one shop after another marketing highly sexualised clothes to young children: short, tight dresses; T-shirts with unsuitable slogans.

"Parents are under a tidal wave of pressure. There are all sorts of messages that bombard children and make them grow up quicker than parents want them to, and it's difficult for parents to protect their children because of music videos, because of what happens in the playground, what they see in shops, online, and because of the messages they get in teen magazines."

Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mothers' Union, has been appointed to lead the inquiry, which will liaise with retailers, parents and advertisers before making its recommendations next year. Katherine Rake, chief executive of the Family and Parenting Institute, has welcomed the inquiry which she hopes will tackle the "creeping commercialisation and sexualisation" of children.

Siobahn Freegard, co-founder of the Netmums website, gave a more cautious welcome. "In general, we are pleased that something is being done about this because it's an issue that different parents' groups have campaigned about. We've had big brands selling skirts hitched up and pole dancing kits for kids and despite pressure from parents to tone this down, the retailers haven't got the message.

"I think it's a bit like the junk food campaign for kids which needed someone to step in. The problem is how are you going to measure when a slogan, or a product, is unacceptable? But the fact there is a formal committee looking into this could provide the extra nudge that retailers need."

She says the line between what is, and isn't, acceptable has been eroded. "You hear people say, 'why do parents buy these things', but it's hard for parents to always know where that boundary is. Pole dancing kits for kids is going too far, but children who watch The X-Factor might see Cheryl Cole dancing provocatively on a music video which they can see on Youtube or MTV, so where do you draw the line? I have an 11 year-old daughter and a lot of people say it's up to the parents what they buy, but it's not just about parents, or the Government, it should be about society working together."

However, she hopes the inquiry doesn't end up becoming a moral crusade. "There is a danger of it becoming a bit worthy. We don't want the blue rinse brigade telling children what they should and shouldn't do, because a lot of the younger mums will take the view, 'I'll decide how to raise my children, not you.'

"But having said that, the fact that big and important people are having this conversation shows that people like me aren't being fussy mums and it proves it's a serious issue that needs to be discussed."