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A 10-year-old Tacoma boy confides in his mom about a problem at school. A fourth-grade girl has repeatedly told him that he is “hot.” The boy is mortified and unsure what to do.

Too sexy too youngA Seattle school library teacher overhears a conversation in the fitting rooms at Nordstrom. Two girls are discussing how much they hate their thighs, wish they had more cleavage, and how “massive” their butts look in certain jeans. As the woman is leaving, she catches sight of the girls. They are no more than 12 years old.

A local second-grader comes home from school in tears. She tells her mother she had to break up with her boyfriend because she caught him cheating on her; kissing another girl. The mother is appalled.

And in Olympia, three middle-school students are formally charged with felonies for an alleged “sexting” incident. They’re accused of sending nude photos of a 14-year-old girl via cell phone.

For many parents, anecdotes like these are becoming too common; they’re worrisome, if not downright frightening. Recent news reports and research about the increased sexualization of children leave parents wondering what is happening to kids these days —and what they can do to stop it.

Trivializing sex

Ask a few experts, ask a few parents, and it’s clear: The media’s to blame for this troubling trend. “There’s a trivialization of sex in our media,” says veteran sex educator Julie Metzger, whose “For Girls Only” class at Seattle Children’s hospital has been a rite of passage for local girls for nearly 20 years. “There is really a tsunami of messages that trivialize women and sex.”

A 2003 analysis of TV sitcoms found gender harassment in nearly every episode. Most common: jokes about women’s sexuality or women’s bodies, and comments that characterized women as sex objects. And according to the 2007 Report of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, “Massive exposure to media among youth creates the potential for massive exposure to portrayals that sexualize women and girls and teach girls that women are sexual objects.”

Those messages can be harmful to kids because they make sex seem common — even normal — among younger and younger kids. In So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids, co-authors Diane E. Levin, Ph.D., and Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D., write that “sex in commercial culture has far more to do with trivializing and objectifying sex than with promoting it, more to do with consuming than with connecting. The problem is not that sex as portrayed in the media is sinful, but that it is synthetic and cynical.”

The result? “Girls are much more sexualized than they have been in the past,” says Amy Lang, a Seattle sexual health educator and the owner of Birds + Bees + Kids. “There is something that has shifted, and I have to wonder if it’s this message they’ve gotten since they were 8, which is that intimacy is less important than how you look.

“They’re dressing in a way that’s more teenager-like. You see a 6- or 8-year-old girl wearing a miniskirt and tights and 1-inch-heel boots. They’re emulating TV shows that they’re watching.”

Sexy talk

That emulation can produce some pretty upsetting results, as one former Seattleite writes:

“Last week, Kate’s first-grade friends started a ‘sexy club’ at recess. I asked her what that meant to her. She said, ‘I don’t know . . . they dance sexy and chase the boys around trying to kiss them.’ I was worried until she told me this week that they disbanded the club. It was too boring. Then I remembered we used to have a game at recess called ‘chase.’”

Increasingly, what media messages translate into is the kind of playground talk that gives parents and teachers fits. “The language has changed,” says Lang. “The credit goes to the media, the kinds of TV shows and movies that are being pitched to young kids. The language they use to talk to each other is more mature, the kind of ‘sexual’ teasing that happens is also more mature. Which does not mean that they understand it.”

Indeed, it’s most likely they don’t understand it, experts say, and that’s causing a new problem: young children who sound far less innocent than they really are. “They use language that seems very provocative,” says Metzger, “but I think those are kids trying out words that they get exposed to. I think kids need to learn how adults are hearing those words.

“What does ‘dating’ actually mean to a second-grader? It means ‘I like you.’ And second-graders have been saying that for years — it’s a perfectly normal second-grade thing,” says Metzger. “But they are using language that has a certain meaning to us as adults. I don’t think it means that they’re out kissing or having sex in the parking lot. I think it means ‘I sit by you at lunch. I like you.’

”If a child says, ‘You’re hot,’ does it mean that they’re getting too sexy too soon — or does it mean they are mimicking words they’re hearing in the culture?”

“Girls have always chased boys on the playground,” agrees Lang. “There has always been kissing in kindergarten.”

And Metzger says boys in particular get too sexy around language. “I’ve been asked quite a bit recently to help boys around the seventh grade to frame their language so it doesn’t come off as harassment. They say things like ‘You’re so gay’ or ‘You look hot,’ and it’s not at all funny.”

The challenge for parents is to parse the real meaning behind these sometimes shocking statements — and then, don’t get carried away, suggests Briana Bennitt, executive director of Three Cedars Waldorf School in Bellevue. “Parents either overreact and forbid activities connected with normal curiosity — like allowing no play dates with children of the opposite gender — or worse, encourage talk of ‘dating’ and ‘marrying’ — when really, the young children are figuring out the dynamics of having friends of the opposite gender.”

And Levin and Kilbourne write that it’s important for parents to keep sexy talk in perspective; that “as adults get more and more uptight about how the sexualized environment is affecting children, they end up ascribing adult intent to behaviors that would have been interpreted as ‘children just being children’ in the past.”

For older kids, dating may mean more than just talk — but perhaps not much. A 2008 poll by Love Is Respect — the online group behind the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline — finds that more than one-third of 11- and 12-year-olds (37 percent) say they’ve already been in a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. What does “dating” mean at this age? For most kids ages 11–14 — about 75 percent, according to the study — it’s a lot of talk. “Fifth grade was the year everyone had a boyfriend for about two weeks,” says Eastside mother of three Elizabeth Huber. “But if they actually had to speak to each other in person, they wouldn’t know what to do! My daughter literally bumped into the guy she was supposed to be ‘going out with’ and was horrified.”

Tween divas

Many tweens who don’t yet care about romance are making their parents squirm with dubious fashion choices — and blossoming penchants for cosmetics.

“[There was] a birthday party my daughter was invited to when she was in fourth grade,” recalls one Seattle mom. “A white stretch limo picked the girls up after school. The car was stocked with feather boas, fake bling and champagne glasses for some sparkling beverage. They cruised Alki, visited a nail salon for manicures and makeup. All I could think was, ‘What are these parents going to do for her 16th birthday?’”

A 2008 report from the market research company NPD Group finds that girls first start using beauty products around the age of 10 — and this number seems to be coming down. In addition, the report says 10-year-olds use more than two dozen different beauty product categories — including cellulite cream! As they have for years, fashion-obsessed tweens pester their parents for the latest labels. “The girls all have their Uggs in many colors,” says Sharon Stypulkowski, a third-grade teacher at Island Park Elementary School on Mercer Island.

But sexy clothes for little kids — the topic of much parental outrage just a few years ago — appear to be on the wane. A recent survey of retailers such as Justice, Abercrombie & Fitch, and even Victoria’s Secret turned up far fewer options of the “hottie” variety than were seen just two years ago. Gone are many of the girls’ T-shirts emblazoned with “Flirt” and “I love boys.” Much more common now? Messages about “Grrrl Power” and saving the planet.

“I think behavior might be sexier, but the looks aren’t ‘too sexy too soon’” these days, says Metzger. “Uggs are hardly sexy.”

In fact, Metzger says, a recent informal survey of sixth-graders revealed the current height of tween fashion are a hoodie (hooded sweatshirt) and those ever-present — and decidedly unsexy — Uggs.

Huber agrees. “I remember that five years ago, the style was to have the belly showing. I don’t see that now.”

Rude ’tudes

What isn’t improving, parents say, is the disrespectful and overly adult attitude that’s prevalent in tween and teen TV characters, like those on Nickelodeon’s “iCarly” and Disney’s “Hannah Montana.” The overall tone, some say, is getting less civil — and that’s showing up in the classroom. “A lot of them know more than they maybe should know at that age,” says Stypulkowski. “I’m seeing it increasing every year a little bit, a certain number of girls value social over academic. Sort of like [the movie] Mean Girls — but at the third-grade level.

“A lot of it is what they’re exposed to — they watch ‘The Hills’ and other shows. Between the media and what they see at home, they’re exposed to a lot more.”

“If you are a 7-year old child,” says Bennitt, “and you are watching media that shows you girls treating each other in a rude fashion, and competing for the attention and approval of boys, the latest fashion, and electronic gadgets — it’s not developmentally appropriate. Girls can easily get the message that what they buy and wear, and therefore how they look, is paramount, while things like character, empathy, intelligence, physical and emotional health are largely ignored.”

Jenny McPherson, an Eastside mother of two girls, ages 5 and 8, agrees. “A lot of times, I’m disgusted by the way they portray females on TV — how they treat friends, the words they use … I don’t see any positive role models. It’s not respectful. Having images of what you strive to be — and having that be it? I don’t want that to be it.”

What to do?

The experts agree: The best way to hold back the “tsunami,” as Metzger calls it, is to manage — and, for most of us, limit — media exposure. “Everything to which you expose your child is an input,” says Bennitt. “In our culture, it’s far too common for parents to not really take charge of that. What it means is that the big business and marketing people are in charge of what is influencing our children.”

Be aware of what your kids are watching — and watch it with them, so you can discuss what they’re seeing. “Children are exposed to information that is beyond their years,” says Lang. “They don’t understand and don’t have ability to process what they’re seeing. Ultimately, it’s very confusing.”

Redmond Girl Scout leader Kate Sorensen recently took her Twilight-crazy troop of 14-year-olds on a tour in Forks, Washington, where the series is set — but not without a few frank discussions about the books’ more teenaged themes, including obsessive love. “I’d say, ‘Do you really think there’s only just one guy for you?’ and they’d say, ‘No!’” Sorensen says. “They weren’t buying into what the books are saying.”

Work to keep media age-appropriate — and stick to your guns, even if other parents are more permissive. “If you can find me a really good reason that an 8-year-old needs to watch a movie about high school, I’d like to hear it,” says Lang.

Decode language, and have frank, age-appropriate discussions about what phrases like “You’re hot” really mean. “Tell them, ‘It’s a grown-up way of talking. “Hot” usually means you’re sexually attractive.’” says Lang. “A child who says this probably doesn’t know what it means; what she probably really means is that she thinks someone’s cute. It’s the parents’ duty is to fill kids in — which means our kids need to know what sex is, starting at around age 5.”

Above all, talk to your kids often about messages they’re seeing — and hearing in songs. Mercer Island mother Carla Barokas talks about a time her three kids — ages 3, 6 and 8 — were singing a popular Taylor Swift song. “They were singing about being 15 and kissing, and I asked them if they even knew what they were singing about. When I told them, they said, ‘That’s gross!’

“I said, ‘You’re supposed to think it’s gross — you’re kids!’”

Kristen Russell Dobson is ParentMap’s managing editor.

Find resources for managing media here.

Tips for counteracting the sexualization of tweens and teens*

Limit exposure to sexual content in media and pop culture.

  • Use media rating systems to help you decide what media is and is not OK.
  • Work with your children to develop rules and routines about their TV watching and media use.

Keep up with children’s media and popular culture.

  • Collect information from the children themselves.
  • Make sure you look at the most popular items at least a couple of times, so you are able to talk with your children about them.
  • Learn from and share what you know with the parents of your children’s friends.
  • Remember that, beyond media, it’s also important to keep up with the real-life experiences related to sex and sexiness, violence and commercialism that children have in the home, at school and with friends.

Get beyond just saying “no.”

  • When possible, try working out solutions with your children.
  • When you do need to set limits or say “no,” try to do it in a constructive way – rather than a punitive way (by using your power over children to get your way).

*Reprinted with permission from So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids by Diane E. Levin, Ph.D., and Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D.

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