Risk … Louise Newman says little is known about how adult images contribute to harmful behaviours among children. Photo: Tamara Voninski
Primary school children should be taught how to resist advertisements that depict thin, ''sexy'' and beautiful people, one of the country's leading developmental psychiatrists says.
While children six years old and younger were worried about their shape, beauty and even dieting, Louise Newman said little was known about the extent adult images contributed to those harmful behaviours or developmental problems down the track.
''While studies have looked at the impact of teenage exposure to sexualised images, there has been no Australian research into the affects of such images on very young children,'' Professor Newman said.
''We need research dollars into … what's happening among those primary school aged children and we're worried about the implication of the way women, in particular, are portrayed in the media.''
Most existing studies had come from the US and Britain and while they were useful, she said Australia had different education and media guidelines.
''While we do have restrictions on what can be shown during children viewing times, we also need to be teaching media literacy to young children in schools,'' said Professor Newman, who is the director of the centre for developmental psychiatry and psychology at Melbourne's Monash University.
''They need to be taught self-protective strategies on how to resist advertisements in magazines, on billboards and the internet that say you have to be thin and beautiful.''
Some parents of young children had no idea how to block inappropriate websites, she said.
''We haven't had an active public education campaign about how to do that, but it would not cost a lot.''
But an associate professor of sexual health at the University of NSW, Juliet Richters, said censorship of images, films and other media was not helpful.
''My default position is an optimistic belief against censorship because I believe if we keep communication open, we can have healthy debate about these issues,'' she said.
''For example many readers criticise and reject fashion magazines and say they don't actually want to see the 'heroin chic' look, or models who look like they're 13 with no tits.''
There was little evidence to show if sexualised images led to teenagers having sex at a younger age or teenage pregnancies. A population health researcher and visiting fellow at the Australian National University, Ann Larson, said where teenagers lived had a greater influence on that.
''We know there are higher teenage pregnancy rates in rural and remote areas, and that is partly due to perceived limited job and career opportunities, and lack of contraceptive advice and services,'' Dr Larson said.