News this week from Ukraine that an eight-year-old child model and her thirteen-year-old social media influencer boyfriend had staged a “wedding” and moved in together sparked an outcry on social media.
Mila Maxanets is eight years old and has more than 500,000 followers on Instagram. Local media reported that she and Pavel Pai, her thirteen-year-old ‘boyfriend’ moved in together, with the encouragement of their parents, and had taken provocative photos of themselves to share on social media. It was reported that police were questioning the girl’s mother over the photos. Their social media pages contain photos of the pair in loving ‘couple’ poses, ‘playing’ at being grown-ups. A recent post showed them chained to one another for a 24-hour challenge.
Apart from the negative consequences for Mila personally as a result of being prematurely thrust into the sexualised world of adults and romantic relationships, her wide reach on social media means that deeply harmful and negative messages about the self-worth and value in society of women and girls is broadcast to her hundreds of thousands of followers.
Mila’s social media profile positions her as a role model for the young girls who ‘follow’ her. The message she communicates to this impressionable audience is that female value is measured by sexual attractiveness, and willingness to form relationships with older ‘men’, even if they are thirteen-year-old boys.
Rather than allowing Mila to experience the freedom of childhood and grow to be her own person; rather than celebrating Mila for her unique personality, her interests, her sporting or academic or artistic achievements, she is being portrayed as a real-life Barbie doll; a sexually desirable, grown up ‘woman.’ At eight years old, it is questionable whether Mila even realises the extent to which she is being exploited. But the abuse should be apparent to any objective observer. This abuse is being normalised and glamorised through Mila’s social media profile.
Research on the negative effects of sexualisation on young girls includes cognitive and emotional consequences such as undermining young girls’ confidence in and comfort with their own bodies, leading to emotional and self-image problems.
“Research links sexualization with three of the most common mental health problems diagnosed in girls and women--eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression or depressed mood.”
The Australian Psychological Society, in its submission to the Senate Committee Inquiry into the Sexualisation of Children in 2008, highlighted the negative impact that sexualisation of young people has on girls:
“The values implicit in sexualised images are that physical appearance and beauty are intrinsic to self-esteem and social worth, and that sexual attractiveness is a part of childhood experience. … exposure to an array of sexualised messages can lead girls to think of themselves in objectified terms (‘self-objectification’). This is a process in which girls learn to see and think of their bodies as objects of others’ desire, to be looked at and evaluated for its appearance. Self-objectification has been found to reduce young women’s ability to concentrate and focus their attention, thus leading to impaired performance on mental activities.”
Young girls navigating their own journeys through childhood and adolescence in the context of an increasingly harmful online world deserve better role models than Mila and Pavel. They deserve to grow up in a world free from sexual exploitation and objectification.