Exposure to Sexualized Advertisements Disrupts Children’sMath
Performance by Reducing Working Memory
Maria Giuseppina Pacilli
Published online: 30 January 2016
Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016
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’sresults
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 demon-
strate 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.
Keywords Body image
Sexualization of children
Working memory capacity
In Western societies, the amount of hyper-sexualized repre-
sentations of both adults and children in advertising and media
has increased tremendously over the last few decades (APA
2007; Zurbriggen and Roberts 2012). Sexualization, defined
as making or depicting someone into a thing for others’ sexual
use (APA 2007), is marked by a number of complex,
interacting factors, such as the extent of nudity and revealing
clothing and poses that are suggestive of sexual activity or
availability (Goodin et al. 2011; Hatton and Trautner 2011).
In their content analysis of two U.S. magazines targeting teen-
agers (and increasingly read by preteens), Graff et al. (2013)
showed that girls’ sexualized representation (e.g., wearing
sexy dresses, high-heeled shoes, adult makeup and jewelry)
has increased up to fifteen fold in the last 30 years.
Widespread sexualization characterizes not only how media
depict girls, but also the market for female clothing sold in
popular stores, which increasingly offers sexualized items
from push-up bras to high-heeled shoes for pre-teens
(Goodin et al. 2011).
In Italy, the country where the present research was con-
ducted, some authors have denounced the increasing
sexualization of women (Zanardo 2010) and children (Giomi
2013) in the national media. For instance, Guastini et al.
2014) pointed out that in 2013, about 81 % of young women
(compared to the 30.61 % of young men) pictured in almost
20.000 Italian advertisements were portrayed as sexually
available characters and more generally as sexual objects.
Furthermore, it is noteworthy that Italy is the country where
the Winx Club cartoon, a cartoon targeting and popular with
children, was conceived and realized, obtaining a huge
* Maria Giuseppina Pacilli
Department of Scienze Politiche, University of Perugia, 06123via
elce di sotto, Perugia, Italy
Department of Psychology, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy
Department of General Psychology, University of Padova,
Sex Roles (2016) 74:389–398