The use of images of children in tabloids has increased in recent years. But campaigns, both in the UK and the US, are trying to put a stop to the practice

'Kids shouldn't be tabloid fodder," said California state senator Kevin de Leon last September, as his bill, limiting paparazzi freedom to photograph children of celebrities, passed in to law. This week, that central message about press treatment of children suddenly gained ground.

On Tuesday, there were two significant victories in a campaign that actor couple Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard have been running since they had their first child, daughter Lincoln, last March. After bringing her home, they found there were always cars outside, waiting to take pictures – filled with photographers they have called the "paedorazzi". The couple has been urging tabloid outlets to stop using non-consensual shots of children, and TV show Entertainment Tonight agreed to do this last Friday, followed by People magazine and online gossip site Just Jared on Tuesday.

That same day, British writer and activist Owen Jones started a petition entitled Stop the Daily Mail sexualising children. Within 24 hours it had around 30,000 signatures. Jones illustrates his point with examples including a story that ran on the Mail website, featuring images of Heidi Klum's eight-year-old daughter being picked up from a gym class, with captions describing the child as "a leggy beauty" and saying she "showed off her best model walk through the parking lot".

The Daily Mail isn't the only tabloid that has been accused of sexualising children. In the report Just the Women, the groups Object, Equality Now, Eaves and End Violence Against Women (EVAW) monitored 11 national newspapers over two weeks in September 2012. They found coverage in many tabloids of a child beauty pageant, which was presented as a source of concern – but provided an excuse, wrote the report's authors, to run "numerous images of young girls in bikinis and swimsuits, makeup and heels". A news story about the pageant in the Sun had the subheading "CAVORTING provocatively in a tiny pink swimsuit and clutching a cuddly stuffed kitten, little Ocean Orrey struts her stuff in a British beauty pageant – aged just FOUR".

When press images of children are taken without consent, they are clearly intrusive – and provide a cultural context in which non-consensual images and, by extension, other non-consensual behaviour, are more acceptable. Sexualised images of young girls suggest female bodies are fair game for objectification, whatever the individual's age. Holly Dustin, director of EVAW, says these images are "part of the culture in which child sexual abuse happens … The way news stories are told is very visual these days, and these stories suggest that women are props and sex objects." Even if adulthood is still years away. © Guardian News and Media 2014