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.
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."
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.