Sex-obsessed magazines rob girls of childhood, say teachers
By Liz Lightfoot, Education Correspondent
Magazines are being confiscated by teachers who say that an obsession with sex and body image is robbing children of their childhood.
Girls as young as nine are regular readers of the glossy publications and take them on school trips for bedtime reading, teachers say.
They accuse the publishers of best-selling titles such as Sugar, Cosmogirl and Bliss of "cynically targeting primary school children" with free gifts and language more suited to their ages than the older teen market they claim is their target readership.
Sex education is being used as a "figleaf" for salacious articles about getting and keeping boyfriends and problem pages full of advice about orgasms, oral sex and the size of sex organs, say the teachers.
The concern about the contents of teen magazines was raised at the annual conference of the third biggest teachers' union yesterday when delegates voted to campaign for the age classification used for films and video games to be extended to magazines. Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, said he had "a lot of sympathy" for their demand for restrictions but the matter fell outside his jurisdiction.
Two executive members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers led the call, saying the magazines were widely read in primary schools.
"They glamorise promiscuity in a way that damages the emotional development of children at their most vulnerable and precious age," said Ralph Surman, the deputy head teacher of Cantrell Primary school in Bulwell, Notts, and the father of three daughters.
"These magazines are read by children as young as nine, 10 and 11 and are targeted at them if you look at the free gifts that come with them, such as pink lip gloss, plastic alarm clocks and CDs with artists who have a young following," he said.
Girls regularly brought them on school trips to read during the quiet time before bedtime. "I confiscate them and send them back to their parents in brown envelopes with stick-its asking whether they are aware of the contents," he said.
In particular, he objected to a competition being run by Sugar to find a young model. "In the March issue one of these glamorous models photographed was aged 12 and another 13. Readers are encouraged to vote for them by telephone. Is it appropriate that they are sexualising a 12-year-old in this way?
"We are exposing these children to a high level of continuous harm by the very inappropriate content chosen to boost sales."
The content was unsuitable for children below the age of at least 14, said Mr Surman, holding up a selection of current issues. "Here are articles asking 'when will you score in 2004?' and '10 tricks he'll use to get you to have sex without a condom'. But the worst material is found on the so-called problem pages, which I would not want to read out in public."
He said newsagents had told him that they tried to discourage children from buying the magazines but had difficulty because there were no age restrictions.
Mr Surman was backed by Lesley Ward, who teaches 10-year-olds at Intake Primary in Sheffield. "Someone has to make a stand and say every young girl should not be encouraged to be a Lolita.
"Of course we teach children about sex but in a responsible way and in a context appropriate for their age. These magazines are confusing for children and robbing them of their childhood."
The content of Sugar - which has a circulation of 291,794 - was defended by Lysanne Currie, its editorial director, who said there was nothing wrong with featuring a 12-year-old as a model because the magazine was aimed at 12- to 18-year-olds. Articles were aimed at the interests of the readership.
"We get 1,000 letters a week of which about 500 are about sex," she said."The messages we put across are that it is illegal to have sex under 16, don't have sex until you are in a lasting relationship and always have safe sex."
Both Bliss and Sugar said they were already subject to regulation by the Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel. The industry's self-regulatory panel, set up in 1996, is aimed at ensuring the sexual content of teenage magazines is presented in a "responsible and appropriate manner". Its guidelines have been approved by the Home Office.