Mummy bloggers – the retail industry’s secret weapon?

They’re just like you and me aren’t they? Down-to-earth, honest-to-goodness parents giving us the inside scoop on child rearing. But access to family email inboxes nationwide makes the mummy blogger a marketing man’s dream. What if some of them embrace the Dark Side?

The other week a group of mummy bloggers got a little flustered when I suggested a link between the commercialization and sexualisation of children, and child abuse. They pooh-poohed the whole idea and suggested I’d had too many sherbets (followed by some self-congratulatory backslapping at their own wit).

The two faces of mummy blogging

Parenting’s a tough gig; you learn most of it on the job and mummy bloggers can offer friendly information on anything from chemical-free living to raising a child with special needs, motivated by nothing more than a genuine desire to provide support and bring awareness to major parenting issues. As a mummy and a blogger, their posts often resonate with me – but not the one that triggered this blogger face-off.

It claimed cosmetics and shopping are what make eight-year-old girls tick. Really? Anyone else got a problem with that? The comments showed mainly agreement from other mummy bloggers – some of whom described hair, nails & make-up parties for seven-year-olds. I was stunned by their tacit acceptance of the commercial sexualisation of children, until I realised, with forehead-smacking clarity, that these particular bloggers are the ones who fall over themselves to schmooze the retail industry whose products they’re paid to link to and review.

Increasingly, blogging has moved from personal to commercial. A source of cheap labor for the advertising industry, bloggers pay to attend conferences where big-name brands distribute freebies and run seminars on how to write sponsored posts and promote them. While earning an income from blogging is empowering, who’s making sure it stays ethical? The Office of Fair Trading requires bloggers to state when a post is sponsored, but in a largely unregulated, burgeoning cottage industry, even unsponsored content can be written to appeal to a particular audience, and it isn’t necessarily you –  for some bloggers, it’s all about repeat business.

The sexual wallpaper of modern childhood

Discussion has been ongoing in Britain about the commercial sexualisation of children, not just the obvious things like underage Facebookers and kids accessing porn on the internet (33% of 10-year-olds have seen explicit content – Claire Perry Report, 2012), but the altogether more stealthy marketing that panders to children’s desire to appear adult, like toddler make-up kits and clothes that are mini versions of adult ones – all bikinis, lace & leopard-print, and inappropriate slogans. We’re finally realizing that taking our lead from the retail industry on what’s age appropriate isn’t a good idea. Well… some of us anyway.

A government review published just last year found too many parents willingly encourage, or “turn a blind eye” to, their children’s exposure to these elements, making them “complicit” in the “unthinking drift towards ever greater commercialization and sexualisation” of children, and for this reason retailers, governments and the media shouldn’t take all the blame. (Reg Bailey Report, 2011)

Many still view child abuse as a self-contained horror perpetrated by freaks that exist outside the protective womb of society. They fail to see the progressive desensitizing of children and parents to adult themes – modified for children and marketed to time-poor adults as treats; exposure that makes a child more vulnerable to those seeking to exploit them.

Sexualised images surround us – Page 3, teen magazines, the barely-clad bodies of nubile celebrities – gender-roles drip-drip through the media like Chinese water-torture. We treat it all with the same indifference we would decorative foliage. When did we become so accepting?

Consumed by consumption

As a society, we no longer show our children how to value themselves. We may tell them they’re more than the sum of their wardrobe, their tech collection, their social standing, but simultaneously we’re consumed by exterior appearance; the right look and the right promises get you in – regardless of quality, cost or ethics. Did we really set out to raise designer-label junkies and cosmetic surgery candidates? We’re all complicit – yet when something horrific happens to rob a child of innocence we plead ignorance and gasp in collective shock.

Adults understand the slippery slope of consumerism and the difference between experimenting with make-up at home and leaving the house inappropriately dressed – but children don’t. Pre-teens see mixed parental messages as a sign you’re not really serious. When it comes to making sure my children know what’s age-appropriate and what’s not, I want them to have no doubts and I want alarm bells to go off if someone tries to tell them otherwise.

What’s the price of a child’s innocence?

While many mummy bloggers tackle these issues head on, the author of the “cosmetics and shopping” post silenced discussion by editing comments so they wouldn’t negatively affect her family/parenting blog rank and lessen her appeal to the PR machine. But she was happy to start a thread in a Facebook bloggers group so that her peers could pour scorn on the idea that commercialization of childhood “grooms” kids for adult life prematurely, “WTF!” and “How do you get from pamper parties for seven-year-olds to child abuse?” they sneered. If they’d included me in the conversation I could’ve explained but something tells me they weren’t interested.

Put simply, if you help kids see themselves as adult, they’re less likely to come to you as a child with a problem. If you blur boundaries, how do you expect them to recognise when something is inappropriate? But don’t take it from me; British charity the NSPCC has already stated their concern “about the extent to which sexualisation increases the risk of harm to children and young people”, affecting their “attitudes, body image, behaviours and self-esteem which can shape their expectations of sexual relationships, and may place them at increased risk of abuse.”

Still, some find it easier to put a pound in the donation box than to actually question their choices or their moral obligations, don’t they? Don’t let aggressive marketing and biased bloggers decree what’s safe for children – make your own decisions; you’re the only one guaranteed to be motivated by something more than personal gain.

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