In an age where a two-year-old girl can be adorned with with false eyelashes and lipstick and a three-year-old put in high heels, the innocence of childhood has never seemed more endangered.
With celebrity toddlers are being dressed for the paparazzi instead of playing with dolls, Conservative leader David Cameron has vowed to take a stand against what he describes as the “sexualisation of children” if he becomes Prime Minister.
And his call has been backed by many parents in Northern Ireland.
While shops stock ‘Lolita’ bed linen, knee-high boots in ever smaller sizes and increasingly skimpier clothing not just pre-teens but young children, celebrity mothers have been pushing the boundaries of this creepy craze — with glamour model Jordan plastering her two-year-old daughter Princess Tiaamii with make-up including lip gloss and false eyelashes, and US actress Katie Holmes dressing her three-year-old Suri in high heels.
Meanwhile 10-year-old Noah Cyrus, younger sister of popstar Miley, shocked the world by posing alongside her older sibling with a provocative expression on her young face.
But now Mr Cameron said he plans to target companies who use children with sexually frank images by banning them from bidding for Government advertising for three years.
He said he practices what he preaches at home by banning his six-year-old daughter Nancy from listening to pop singer Lily Allen — whose lyrics include tales of casual sex.
SDLP MP Alasdair McDonnell has four children under 10, including two girls Dearbhla (10) and Aileen (four), and said he would back Cameron’s push to protect young children. “I have no problem with my children being fashionable but I feel the premature sexualisation is a form of child abuse,” he said.
“I share David Cameron’s concerns and I would welcome anything he might do to prevent the exploitation of children.
“I believe children are entitled to enjoy their innocence and I think the premature sexualisation of children is both foolish but also damaging to the child.
“I think children should be allowed to enjoy their childhood without being forced into early adulthood before their time.”
DUP Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster has three young children and said she worries about the images her youngsters see on TV and online, but said it was “an issue of parent control”.
“I do think the fashion industry can be very concerning, allowing adult clothes into children’s ranges,” she said.
“That is why I would be very supportive of groups like the Girl Guides and the Scouts that allow children to have fun in a safe environment
“It is challenging with some of the things on television, such as on the Brit Awards the other night, some of the outfits and the language were inappropriate, but it is an issue of parent control.”
Pip Jaffa, chief executive of the Parents Advice Centre, said sexualisation of children was something that has happened gradually over two decades — but maintained it was up to parents to regulate how their children dress.
“It has been a gradual erosion. It used to be children were children — 11 was a transition when they moved to the secondary scheme and then at 13 they became teenagers, but up until then they were a child. Now I am not sure where the boundary is,” she said.
“But whether or not Government do anything, it is the responsibility of the parents what their own children wear.
“We are not talking about teenagers, this is young children who need guidance.
“To do a two-year-old up with lipstick is without a doubt portraying the child as very sexual.
“There is nothing wrong with children dressing up in mummy’s shoes, they know they are dressing up for play but there is a difference between children being dressed up, which is the sexualisation of children.
“Lets not beat around the bush, it is to be completely deplored.
“Lets keep children as children and keep their clothes age appropriate.
“Children’s job is to push the boundaries, challenge parents and see what they can get away with. It is extremely challenging and I feel for parents but they must stand their ground.”
The Parents Advice Centre runs a helpline for parents on 0808 8010722.