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Should Dolly magazine be banned for girls under 15?

What will be the right age for your daughter to read Dolly magazine? This is a question I had to answer a lot – publicly and privately – when I was editor-in-chief of Dolly and the answer was never straightforward.

In short? Dolly is aimed at girls aged 14-17 with readers on either side of that core. Do girls as young as 10 or 11 pick it up occasionally? I’m sure they do. Little girls have big sisters. But the magazine is absolutely not directed at girls that young. Never has been. So what is an appropriate age?

Well, it depends on the girl.

It’s certainly true that as an adult, the further you get from a particular life stage (in this case, being an adolescent girl), the harder it is to recall what that stage feels like from the inside.

And I know that since I became a mum and as my children get older, I’m becoming more prudish about sex, advertising and media.

For example, I loathe those giant billboards and metrolights that scream about male sexual dysfunction! Erectile disorders! Premature ejaculation! They’re things I’d rather not discuss with my kids on the way to school.

I also find myself crossly flicking the breakfast radio dial in the car when the announcers are asking callers to phone in and “tell us if anyone in your family has had sex with each other!”. Seriously, that happened to me a few weeks ago.

But I get extremely frustrated when the content of teen magazines is discussed in the same breath as broader media. There is a huge and crucial difference.

And I passionately disagree with the idea that Dolly and Girlfriend should be restricted to girls of a certain age.

According to newspaper reports, The Senate inquiry into the sexualization of children in the media (due to report later this month) is expected to recommend a warning on the front cover of teen magazines, such as “only suitable for 15 years and above”.

Inquiry member Senator Stephen Parry told The Age he was concerned that teenage girls as young as 11 and 12 were exposed to headlines in Dolly and Girlfriend like “Can I perform oral sex if I have braces?”

“It seems there is enormous pressure on teenagers to become sexually active at a young age, because from watching television and reading teenage magazines they sense that sexual activity is the norm and everyone must be having these experiences because the media is full of it,” Senator Parry told The Age.

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“Pre-teens reading these magazines could be left with the view that regular intercourse, oral sex, anal sex and sex whilst doing drugs is the norm for their age group, when the magazine is not targeted at their age demographic.”

Oh where to begin……

One of the first things I did when I began working at Dolly several years ago was bump up the number of Dolly Doctor pages from one to six. We divided the content into ‘medical’, ‘emotional’ and ‘friends’ and we employed the appropriate experienced, qualified adolescent health professionals to answer reader questions under those three umbrellas.

Dolly Doctor is an iconic part of the magazine and has been educating, informing and reassuring worried teenage girls for decades.

Cast your mind back to puberty for a sec and try to remember that tumultuous cocktail of curiosity, embarrassment and angst.

What so many adults forget is how isolating and confusing those years are. So many questions and so few trusted sources of information. Parents, doctors, teachers, even friends can’t always help…there’s far too much potential for mortification and betrayal. Confide in your best friend that one breast is bigger than the other and it could be all over the school by lunchtime.

In a perfect world, our daughters would feel comfortable coming to us with their most detailed, intimate questions and we would feel comfortable enough (and informed enough) to answer them to their satisfaction. In the real world, this is a pipe dream.

The other thing most people (especially men) don’t understand is that girls – and women – always seek information about the NEXT stage of life. We like to plan ahead. We gather knowledge about life experiences we haven’t yet had, so when the time does come, we’re prepared.

The fact that a girl is curious about sex does not necessarily indicate she’s about to HAVE sex. Or even that she wants to have sex any time soon. Nor does knowing about a behaviour make her more likely to engage in it. In fact, it’s often the opposite.

Repeated studies have shown that girls who are educated about sex feel more confident and empowered to resist pressure from boys or their peer group than girls who’ve been kept in the dark.

When I was at Dolly, we took our responsibility very seriously. We were not sex pushers. Far from it. We published a huge number of articles on the positive aspects of virginity, the dire effects of sexually transmitted diseases and the negative emotional and physical consequences of having sex too early.

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The bulk of Dolly Doctor content has always been based around reassuring girls that their bodies and feelings were normal. There’s also information about contraception, gynaelogical health, sexuality….basically, all the issues the readers told us they wanted – needed – to know about.

At what age this information is relevant to an individual girl is not something you can control or impose. If a reader seeks the information, it means it’s relevant to her. It’s not up to a magazine, let alone a government to decide when a girl needs to know about contraception or sexual health. It’s personal.

Did your parents or your doctor or your teacher know when you first had sex? I’m guessing they didn’t. Teenagers are notoriously private.

Generally, I found readers simply ignored content that wasn’t relevant or interesting to them, in exactly the same way adults do when they read a magazine, a newspaper or a website.

Yes, as parents we would prefer our kids to stay kids until they’re, oh, I don’t know… 21? We wish. The idea of our babies growing up and dealing with adult issues like sex and drugs is enormously confronting.

But by burying our heads in the sand and restricting the responsible flow of information about issues like sex and drugs to our kids, we’re doing them a great disservice. And pushing them underground.

Why? Because there is a huge gap between what young girls are comfortable discussing with their parents, what they learn about in school sex education and what they want to know.

So as parents, we have two options.

One is to allow girls to obtain that information and reassurance from adolescent health professionals via publicly accountable sources such as mainstream teenage magazines like Dolly and Girlfriend. To support them in that process and let them know we’re there if they want more information.

The other is to jam our heads in the sand and leave Dr Google to fill in the blanks. Because to believe a teenager won’t access information about sex, health and sexuality that way is to be wilfully, dangerously naïve.

The internet is a Pandora’s box of free, unrestricted information and misinformation about sex. How is a 14 year old meant to tell the difference?

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