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Exposure to Sexualized Advertisements Disrupts Children’s Math Performance by Reducing Working Memory

Abstract

Despite the recommendations from the American Psychological Association’s (APA, 2007) task force on the sexualization, no known research has shown the effects of sexualized advertisements on children’s cognitive abilities. The present experiments address this question with a sample of 8–10 year-olds. Primary school children were exposed to advertisements that portrayed sexualized vs. non-sexualized children and then were asked to complete a math test (Study 1 and Study 2) preceded by a working memory test (Study 2). As predicted, exposure to sexualized images of girls hampered girls’, but not boys’, math performance (Study 1, N = 79). Findings from Study 2 (N = 102) replicated Study 1’s results for girls and demonstrated that sexualized ads of boys disrupted boys’ math performance as well, thus indicating that same-gender sexualized images are disruptive for both girls’ and boys’ cognitive performance. Moreover, the detrimental effect of same-gender sexualized images on both girls’ and boys’ math performance was mediated by a reduction in working memory resources. These findings clearly demonstrate the damaging effects of sexualized advertisements on children’s cognitive performance and suggest the urgency of implementing interventions aimed at combating sexualization in early childhood, which transmits the cultural message that having a sexy (young or adult) body is extremely important.

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Correspondence to Maria Giuseppina Pacilli.

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Pacilli, M.G., Tomasetto, C. & Cadinu, M. Exposure to Sexualized Advertisements Disrupts Children’s Math Performance by Reducing Working Memory. Sex Roles 74, 389–398 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-016-0581-6

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Keywords

  • Body image
  • Sexualization of children
  • Objectification
  • Cognitive performance
  • Mathematics
  • Working memory capacity