I noted with interest the report Letting Children be Children, which was published in the UK earlier this year. I am also aware of, and indeed share, Irish parents' concerns regarding the increasing sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood.
Since becoming Minister I have repeatedly stressed the need for a cross-community approach to protecting children and preserving the space of childhood. All of society has a responsibility in this regard, including retailers, broadcasters, advertisers and the Internet industry. Indeed, some disturbing information is becoming available about the abuses children can be exposed to via new media. As I have already indicated, I have directed that my Department's new policy framework for children and young people, which is to be published in 2012, should address emerging issues such as the impact of new technologies, media and consumerism on young people.
The UK report acknowledges that while the body of knowledge on topics to do with the sexualisation and commercialisation of children is growing, it is still inconclusive, and that further research, particularly longitudinal research, is required to investigate whether there is evidence of harm to children from these phenomena and how this harm occurs. Many people have an opinion that such harm does occur, but there is a suggestion that further work needs to be done.
My Department recently published the National Strategy for Research and Data on Children's Lives 2011-2016. In the preparation of this strategy, extensive consultation was carried out with a variety of organisations working directly with children, regional and local bodies, representative groups and central Government as well as children and young people themselves. This consultative process identified a small number of references to the issues addressed by the Letting Children be Children report, such as the influence of marketing and media messages on children and sexualisation through clothing.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
My Department is funding a national longitudinal study of children entitled Growing Up in Ireland. The broad base of this study enables the examination of a range of influences and outcomes in children's lives and, while it is not explicitly concerned with issues of commercialisation and sexualisation, it has the capacity to provide data on issues of relevance, such as the extent to which nine year old children have unsupervised access to different forms of media. Findings from the Growing Up in Ireland study and other recent research and consultations are informing the development of my Department's new policy framework for children and young people. In particular, my Department has been engaged in one of the most extensive consultations ever undertaken with children in Ireland. All of these results will inform the priorities set out in the policy framework for children and young people next year.