For many years, children at one Chicago nursery school have enjoyed playing with big cardboard boxes, transforming them into trucks, spaceships, castles, and forts. Lately, though, the preschool staff has been watching a little more closely when kids disappear into the cartons. The reason? Teachers recently found a 4-year-old boy lying on top of a female classmate, trying to kiss her.
In the past, educators would have thought such behavior was an indication that a child had been sexually abused. But these days, they're just as likely to suspect that kids are merely mimicking something they've seen on TV. "Children always react to what they're exposed to in the media," says Diane Levin, a former teacher and author of Remote Control Childhood? Combating the Hazards of Media Culture (National Association for the Education of Young Children). "Play often involves issues children are trying to understand, and one of those issues is sex."
Although violence in the media has provoked major public controversy, concern is growing about the impact of exposure to sexualized language and situations, especially on the very young. There's no consensus among experts on the short- or long-term effects our sex-heavy pop culture has on kids. But parents of young children seem to agree that the media's obsession with sex is prodding kids to look and act precociously sexual. "My 3-year-old stands in front of the mirror and belts out words from a Britney Spears song -- 'I'm not that inn-o-cent,' " says Molly Gordy, a mother of two girls in New York City. "We sure hope that's not true."
What's coming out of the mouths of babes hardly sounds innocent -- even though it usually is. Driving a car pool of 5-year-olds, a California mother was dumbfounded when her daughter asked, "What's a blow job?"
The first response of startled parents is to wonder where their youngsters are picking up such words and ideas. But the answer is simple: everywhere. Long before they can read, today's kids are bombarded with sexual imagery -- on magazine covers, in TV commercials, in movie trailers, and on billboards. "Advertisers increasingly use sex to capture a consumer's attention," says Gail Dines, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Wheelock College, in Boston.
At home, television has turned up the sexual heat. More than half of all television programs -- 56 percent -- contain some sexual material, according to a recent study by the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan advocacy group. From 1989 to 1999, the frequency of sexual interactions, verbal and physical, more than tripled during prime-time viewing hours. References to genitalia occurred more than seven times as often, while foul language increased more than five and a half times.
Even movies geared toward young children aren't as tame as they were a generation ago. Pocahontas, with her strapless dress and exposed cleavage, is far sexier than Cinderella ever was. Remakes of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, unlike the originals, are sprinkled with double entendres and sexual references.
Many parents assume that sexual sizzle goes over the heads of kids barely old enough to tie their shoes. But that's not necessarily the case, says clinical psychologist Ben Allen, Psy.D., of Northbrook, Illinois. "Children are sponges," he says. "They don't respond to suggestive material by becoming sexually stimulated in the way that adults do, but they do find it intriguing."
Certainly, young children are curious and impressionable. "My 6-year-old picks up on everything he sees in ads, on billboards, and on magazine covers," says Mary Kay Turner, of San Ramon, California. "He'll ask questions like 'Why are they kissing that way?' I find myself having conversations that I don't think he's ready for." A Washington, D.C., mother, certain that her preschooler wasn't even paying attention to a commercial for Viagra that came on during a game show, said she was amazed when the 4-year-old asked her what erectile dysfunction meant. "I told him it was a medical problem, and that was enough information to keep him satisfied," she said. "I'm glad he wasn't watching television with his 12-year-old cousin. Who knows how he would have explained it."
Some experts say that the barrage of sexual material can be baffling to young children. "Kids have always been interested in each other's bodies, but now they're puzzled because they're seeing things that are far more complex than what they would naturally be curious about," says Levin. Worse, a precocious interest in sexuality may distract 4- and 5-year-olds from more important developmental tasks, such as learning to negotiate with friends, use language precisely, and play creatively.
Peering into the future, parents wonder where the bombardment of sexual messages and images will lead. "What parents fear most is the impact on later behavior and sexual experimentation," observes Debra Haffner, former president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States and author of From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children (Newmarket). "But there's no evidence at all to suggest that learning to roll your hips to a music video at age 6 means you're more likely to have sex when you're in ninth grade," Haffner says.
Nonetheless, sexual experimentation is beginning at surprisingly early ages. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit reproductive-health research organization, two out of ten girls and three out of ten boys have had sexual experience by age 15. What's more, there are widespread reports of increased sexual activity, including oral sex, among middle-school students -- although reliable statistics are hard to come by.
Even at younger ages, though, children have an awareness of sexuality and sexual terms. One mom described taking her 5-year-old to a birthday party where little girls were gyrating their hips while lip-synching the lyrics of a suggestive song. "They looked like a bunch of little Lolitas," she says.
Fashion feeds into the trend as well. Though little girls have always delighted in dressing up in grown-up clothes, some kids' styles are even sexier than what's inside Mom's closet. Stores sell tube tops, belly-baring hip-hugger skirts, even bras and bikini panties for girls as young as 6 or 7. "They all want to look and dress just like the sexiest pop stars," one New York City mom complains.
How do the sexually charged images of pop music affect children? Experts disagree. "Young girls don't comprehend that people can view a pop singer as a sex symbol," says Dr. Allen. "But at the same time, they know that looking and acting like Christina Aguilera grabs attention. The danger is that girls may think they need to be like her to have a sense of self-worth."
However, others believe that children find harmless comfort in contemporary music. "Young kids get into a hypnotic state that's somewhat erotic when they watch music videos or listen to pop songs," says psychiatrist Lynn Ponton, M.D., of the University of California at San Francisco, an expert on child sexuality and author of The Sex Lives of Teenagers (Dutton). "It's one of the ways they feel safe having their first sexual feelings. The songs give them permission to feel excited in a harmless way."
Most parents say they can largely control what movies, television, and music their children are exposed to. Nonetheless, even the most vigilant parent can't completely shield a child from the sexual material that's so much a part of contemporary culture. Sooner or later, every youngster is going to see an inappropriate video or listen to a song with obscene lyrics. "We live in an age when sexuality is freely accepted and exposed," Dr. Allen says. "Trying to insulate a child from sexual material is like fighting a tornado. You need to think of it as junk food. Once in a while, it's not really a threat, but you want to avoid a steady diet."
Parents should make an effort to help a child understand what
he'll inevitably encounter. The best way to do that is by talking openly with your child about sex and being available and willing to answer any questions that come up. For preschool kids, it's wise to teach correct anatomical terms for body parts and functions. If a child hears (or uses) slang, parents may want to explain that such words are inappropriate. Opinions vary on when parents should talk to their children about the birds and the bees; some experts say that explaining sex to a child at about age 5 or 6 can help ensure that he'll get the message from you, not his friends. With kids this age, keep conversations simple and brief. Ask kids what they already know to gauge how much they've heard. Listen carefully to their responses, and clarify any mistaken impressions. Provide only the information they want at the moment.
When it comes to a child's using sexual language or mimicking sexual behavior, the way parents respond makes a lasting impression. It's important not to scold or punish a child or make him feel ashamed.
"Remember that sexual curiosity and experimentation, like playing doctor, are normal for 4- and 5-year-olds," Haffner says. However, children who engage in behaviors such as oral-genital contact or simulated intercourse may well have been victims of sexual abuse, so that possibility should be investigated. It's also possible, however, that these kids may have come across inappropriate materials in the media. If parents find that young children are venturing into adults-only territory, they should explain why the material isn't suitable for kids.
"It's not fair for adults to make children feel bad for their fascination with material that we expose them to," says media expert Levin. "If you say, 'Don't do that' without explaining why, children conclude that they can't go to adults for help figuring this stuff out." Rather, your goal should be to put what your children see and hear into context. Here are some ways to begin:
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the March 2001 issue of Parents magazine.