Little girls wanting to grow up too fast. Concerned parents hovering around the edges, limiting this, tut-tutting that and feeling a little (or a lot) overwhelmed and out-of-date.

There’s some of this that’s ageless – every parent in every generation worried about their little girls growing up too fast and wanting to hold the world that objectifies girls and women at bay for as long as possible. I remember back to the school discos that my little boys eagerly anticipated (because soft drink and chips were included in the entry cost) where there was a huge divide between the little girls arriving looking sexy and those looking sweet. School balls have been much the same, with some outfits leaving only nipples and ovaries to the imagination.

The insidious creep of social media into our lives and child raising though has introduced a new dynamic and greater pressure on our girls especially, now exposed to countless images and videos of girls their own age looking worldly, glamorous, sexually mature and cool. The terms fat-shaming or slut-shaming have joined the parenting party, leaving parents walking on eggshells, worried that their limitations might be damaging their daughters’ emerging sense of self as she journeys from the sweetness of childhood to the many demands of womanhood.

Developmentally normal pre-pubescent changes

There’s a period in childhood that many parents struggle to come to terms with – the almost-overnight maturation of the pre-teen with the attitude and newly emerged body awareness. No more showers with siblings and outrage when someone invades their privacy while dressing or bathing. This is a beautiful and very natural part of development.

Let’s give this period of time an age range – 8-12 is about right. Earlier for some girls than for others which might be dependent on onset of menses, pubescent body changes and birth order too. Social popularity, fashion awareness, wanting to be connected to their peers all the time becomes a key focus in these years and with the addition of social media into the mix, our girls’ exposure to what’s cool and what’s not has increased exponentially.

TikTok – cleverly harvesting our girls’ attention

Did you ever go on a school camp as a child and then get home and really miss being with your friends in the dormitory? The giggling, glorious secrets, definite alliances and sense of being best friends forever! As our children get into their middle childhood years, the importance of friends and fitting in goes through the roof!

TikTok is like being on school camp all the time – a glorious little window into the lives of others that leans right into the developmental needs and curiosities of our pre-teen girls. 61% of TikTok users are female and 30% of those are aged 10-18. Of course, we can expect that the number of children falsifying their age to 13+ when setting up their

TikTok account means that the number of pre-10 year olds is much, much higher than shown in the current statistics.

TikTok and the sexualisation of our girls

Have you taken a look yourself? It’s interesting because the clever algorithm that’s applied means that what you hover over and watch you get fed more of. If your child is on TikTok, I’d highly encourage you to sit with them and watch their feed because it will be remarkably different to what you would see on your own or if you signed up today and actually put in your real date of birth.

Our girls are being marinated in an always-on cyber-world that glorifies those with flat stomachs and cheekily exposed breasts, who have sexy dance moves, made up faces and exposed bodies. That beautiful little being tentatively emerging from childhood is being shaped by what so many women have fought against for so long – a culture that reinforces misogyny and sexism, one that objectifies women. While the western world has long preyed on girls and women for their skin-deep characteristics now it is in our homes much earlier as a result of social media. Instead of a slow and steady transition from little girl to woman, there is now a catapult from innocence to sexualisation that is sitting there right beneath our children’s fingers.

Holding the line

What has deeply fascinated me in putting this blog together has been the voices of young women talking about their early experiences of sexualisation on apps like TikTok. Without fail, all have reflected on their gratitude for parents who had strong boundaries and who held the line on use of makeup, wearing of clothes designed for older girls and women and who did not allow the posting of over-sexualised content on socials. Amazing huh? What our children are pushing back against today in the race to grow up, they’re grateful for when they’ve done the growing up.

What’s online is permanent and it is owned by the app on which it is posted. The audience is massive and a number of them out there looking at our little girls pretending to be women are those who seek content to feed their perverted sexual desires. Horrifying.
As parents, it is on us to protect and guide our girls as they grow to womanhood in a digital world, facing head-on the contentious conversations that might include, ‘My body, my choice’ and, “You’re slut-shaming or fat-shaming.” Take a deep breath and don’t get sucked into the high and heavy emotion. ‘Our family, our rules’ is allowed and encouraged, disappointment and outrage at having such ridiculously strict parents is a sign of a healthy system, and the capacity to have hard conversations both listening and negotiating is a must.

Hold the line. Have those conversations. Have a sensible timeline for when you’ll allow the moves into the world of women and make that a beautiful and longed for rite of passage.

Resources that might help

DiGii@Home – our first-in-the-word children’s social networking experience is a place where your child and their friends can hang out and learn. With a clever application of AI, DiGii@Home teaches children how to be safe, civil and savvy online while they play. It also includes a parent learning library and the opportunity to invite people to share that with you at no cost.

In her latest book ‘Girlhood’ Maggie Dent explores the familiar and changing challenges of raising little girls today including the sexualisation of our little girls and its impact over a lifetime. Definitely worth a read.

Friends, fitting in & all that stuff’ is a practical little guide for children in primary school co-authored by Helen Davidson and myself that explores the complexities of children and their friendships. There’s a parent and child version of these skill-based little books.