Your 14-year-old daughter shows up on MySpace in a bikini. Her 13-year-old friend is wearing a miniskirt that might make Britney Spears blush. Time to panic? Not necessarily.
Wearing short-shorts and belly shirts, grinding to hip-hop hits, and posting provocative pictures of themselves on the Internet -- the behavior of many teen and tween girls has parents wondering if their daughters are bound for a lifetime of promiscuity and loose morals.
But some psychologists and child-development specialists believe nothing about the teenage drama has really changed. While young women may express their sexuality more overtly than they have in the past, for the most part, their behavior isn't cause for alarm. It's a necessary step in growing up.
Looking Sexy Doesn't Equate With Sexual Activity
Looks can be deceiving. A girl who puts a seductive picture of herself on the Internet for all to see may shudder at the thought of striking the same pose in front of her peers.
"There's a difference between posting a picture of yourself in virtual space, like Myspace or YouTube or Friendster, and posing in provocative clothing in public," said John Broughton, Columbia University professor of psychology and education.
Similarly, sexy clothes do not beget sexual activity.
Jaana Juvonen, who studies the development of middle and high school students at UCLA, said that because girls hit puberty earlier now than they did decades ago, they're tempted to mimic the appearance of their older peers. That doesn't mean they're engaging in acts that ought to be beyond their years.
"Many girls might look very differently from how they act," she said. "We should not judge them based on what they look like."
Nor should adults assume that teenagers are having sex because their style of dancing or taste in music suggests it.
According to LynNell Hancock, a Columbia University journalism professor who covers the youth beat, bumping and grinding to today's sultry songs no more reflects what teens do off the dance floor than grooving to Jimi Hendrix or Elvis Presley did in the past.
"Moving your hips in the suggestive way that Elvis was doing made adults think that we were hopping into bed with everything that moved," she said, reflecting on her teenage years. "And of course that wasn't the case -- it was just another case of expressing sexuality."
Not Much More Than Meets the Eye
While young women may come off as sexier than ever before, sexual activity among teens is on the decline.
A study by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that researches sexual and reproductive health, found that teenagers today wait longer to have sex than they did in the past -- the proportion of teenage girls who had ever had sex declined from 49 percent in 1995 to 46 percent in 2002.
For teens, sometimes the meaning behind a scanty outfit is no more substantial than the clothing itself. Hancock believes that striking a sexy pose may be an extension of childhood -- just like playing princess or astronaut. It allows teens to escape their everyday lives and play in a realm removed from reality.
"Adults think that kids take everything literally -- if [teens] pose in a bikini, they're suddenly sexually active," she said. "It's odd that adults who are supposed to think more conceptually are thinking so concretely."
To paraphrase Will Smith's 1990s teenage anthem, sometimes parents just don't understand.
"What adults don't get is that MySpace and YouTube are very complex and really quite innovative media that have a whole set of conventions of their own, which are not really meant very seriously and not taken very seriously," Broughton explained. "It's not really as personal as it seems."
A New Problem, or an Old One Rehashed?
Some say that teen girls' fascination with itsy-bitsy clothing, misogynistic hip hop music and porn star-esque celebrities can't be dismissed as just another phase in growing up.
Ariel Levy, author of "Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture." believes girls who strive to appear sexy may grow into women who see sex as their only value.
"I think there's an element of generational rebellion and nobody wants to turn into their mother," Levy said of teen girls wearing barely there mini-skirts and thong underwear. "But the extent to which you see that can't be dismissed as only a youthful valiance."
But at its root, Hancock believes that nothing about today's teen problem is really new.
"Every generation thinks that teenagers are going to hell in a hand basket for a variety of reasons," she said. "There isn't any new problem here."
According to Hancock, by dressing provocatively, dancing seductively and posting salacious photos on social networking sites, young women are trying to accomplish a time-honored goal of adolescence: establishing their independence.
"They're breaking away from their parents and authority figures in order to become independent people. These are all just expressions of that," she said. "We like to think of children as completely innocent. So when they do things that are not age appropriate, it freaks people out."
Let's Talk About Sex (to a Point)
Rather than dismiss teenagers' expression of sexuality as a breakdown of values and decency, child development specialist Juvonen suggests parents and school administrators should talk with teens about what it means to display sexuality.
"It's the kind of dialogue that's missing from our schools at the moment: Have you thought about what that kind of picture does to people? What is the likely reaction for people who see that picture? " she said. "It's about adults learning what kids do on the Internet and using that information to help us prepare them to deal with the issues they have not thought about."
For parents still uneasy about MySpace, Friendster and Facebook, Broughton said consider social networking sites from a new angle. In an age where the pressure to weigh less and look hot can overwhelm young women, a teen girl posting her picture on the Internet can be seen as having a healthy self-image.
"Putting up pictures of yourself scantily dressed on MySpace is, in a way, kind of a good sign," he said. "The good news is that it's somebody who isn't horrified by their appearance. Also if they get some positive response, that can be very supportive."
Broughton believes that if parents can stop treating social networking sites as the scourge of the century, they may be able to see how Internet forums can be valuable, even educational, for teenagers.
"If they were not attacked and misunderstood and panicked about, they could be respected as young people in a domain in which they're behaving supportively and democratically," he said.
If nothing else, step back and let kids be kids. Because no amount of interference can stop the adolescent drama from playing out, Hancock's advice is to keep the lines of communication open and stop fretting. Remember -- a Britney Spears-inspired outfit does not a hussy make.
"Don't worry about how they're dressed. You don't have to walk down the hallway of high school with your child," she said. "Relax. This too shall pass."