A bawdy YouTube video of 8- and 9-year-olds dancing to Beyonce's hit "Single Ladies" has gone viral and spurred a debate over whether America's little girls are getting too sexy too young.
"There's something kind of disturbing about these images, otherwise they wouldn't be all over the Internet," says Jay Reeve, a clinical psychologist in Tallahassee, Fla. "It's pretty clear that this dance is erotic in a way that would be more appropriate for girls post-puberty."
The dance number, performed at the recent World of Dance competition in Los Angeles, has the girls wearing midriff tops, hot pants and fishnet gloves. But it's not just the amount of skin the girls are showing, says Vivian Friedman, child psychologist and professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
"People have always admired young ballerinas in scanty costumes," says Friedman, "but those performances weren't explicitly sexual -- there was an aesthetic that didn't remind you of being in bed." That's not the case with the this dance, she says.
Cory Miller, father of one of the girls, defended the dance on "Good Morning America," saying the girls' performance was "completely normal for dancing" and just "doing something they completely love to do."
While psychologists agree that the girls are most likely unaware of the inappropriate implications of their dance, they warn that coaching girls in this kind of behavior sends the wrong message.
"We're pushing kids younger and younger to be sexual. The girls are having fun and enjoying the attention they get from it," says Friedman, but it's teaching them that the way to get attention is by acting sexual and seductive.
Reeve agrees, saying that it's normal for kids to seek attention and approval for exhibiting skills.
"It's the same drive that makes a kid want to be a great baseball player or to do impressive tricks on their skateboard." but in this situation, there are clearly sexual implications for the 'skills' they are showing off, he says.
"When you reward sexual behavior [at this age], they're probably going to continue to try to gain applause and approval from this type of behavior. You're coaching them that they are expected to behave in a way that's prematurely sexual."
The "Single Ladies" performance is endemic of a much larger trend toward oversexualizing little girls, child psychologists say.
"We are advancing kids too early; they're not enjoying their childhood," says Manhattan psychologist Jeff Gardere. "They doing these adult things, albeit innocently, but I think it takes away from their innocence."
A similar controversy arose in April when a British fashion chain Primark started marketing padded bikini tops to girls as young as 7. "The retailer has since publicly apologized and removed the bikinis from distribution, but controversies such as these raise an important question:
Who's at fault when little girls become oversexualized?
Certainly not the little girls, says Gardere.
"These are sexualized dances," he says, "but it's probably innocent in the girls' minds. Kids will imitate anything they see, but they also won't necessarily understand the suggestibility of the adult behavior," he says.
"I don't think we should make the kids feel like they did something wrong, or turn it into something they don't intend it to be," he says.