N E W Y O R K, April 9, 2001 -- Sex is nothing new to American kids. Pre-teens can sing along with pop-star Britney Spears' suggestive lyrics; they laugh when movie character Austin Powers meets a seductress named Ivana Humpalot.
Long before they can read, today's children are bombarded with sexual images in their music, on television and in movies. And if you think children aren't affected, think again, one expert says.
"Children can't fully understand sex," says education professor Diane Levin, "or how it's attached to relationships."
Levin, author of Remote Control Childhood? Combating the Hazards of Media Culture, has studied the effects of media on children's development for over 20 years. She believes that a barrage of sexual information too early confuses children.
"Children are seeing these images at a time when they're struggling to figure out what does it mean to be a boy? What does it mean to be a girl?," she says. "What does it mean to have interaction between males and females?"
According to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average American child spends more than 38 hours a week on video games, music, TV, reading and their computers — nearly the equivalent of a full-time job.
And the report notes that 68 percent of the material the children watch contains sexual content, up from 56 percent just two years ago.
"The kind of increased sexual images that children are seeing in the media and in their toys has a parallel with when they get a little older," Levin says. "They start becoming sexually active earlier."
In fact, research shows that during the 1970s and '80s, an increasing proportion of kids were having sex in their early teens. By the mid-'90s, more than 24 percent of girls and 27 percent of boys had had intercourse by age 15.
The Meaning of 'Sexy'
Even if they see their kids watching sexual images or mouthing the words to racy songs, some parents assume that sexual messages are lost on young children.
To test that theory, Good Morning America brought a group of boys and a group of girls, ages 7 to 10, to the Children's Museum of Manhattan. While their parents observed from another room, the children watched clips from their favorite TV shows, movies and music videos.
One young boy, Teddy, said he thought singer Britney Spears dressed the way she did "so she looks cool on TV."
Another boy, Nigel, said "she wants to look all sexy, that's it!" He further explained that acting sexy means, "to wear tight clothing and expose your body."
In the girl's group, Neema, who was watching a Jennifer Lopez video, was quick to volunteer that she knew the video's ending: The singer removes her shirt. Asked why the singer did it another of the girls quickly responded, "To look sexy," she said.
Their parents were dismayed.
"It's kind of scary what these kids are seeing" said Terry Atwell. "And what they're exposed to at this age, the things that they can talk about even at four and five years old."
Another parent also voiced concern about the possible long-term effects of such exposure.
"Whether or not they understand the nuances of what's going on, they're absorbing all of that information," said Bob Salant. "And perhaps it's not going to affect them today, but who knows how it's affecting their behavior patterns in the next couple of years."
Sexual material is so entwined in pop culture that even the most vigilant parent would have a hard time keeping their children away from it.
There is no research at this point demonstrating that young kids who are exposed to sexual imagery get involved in earlier sexual activity says Good Morning America's Parenting Contributor Ann Pleshette Murphy.
But Murphy points out that there is overwhelming evidence that exposure to violence and aggression leads to violent and aggressive behavior, even in children as young as eight years old.
Although many parents assume that PG-13 rated movies are comedies without a lot of sex and nudity, they should be aware that the movies contain adult jokes and situations. And kids pay attention to it, even if they don't understand it, Murphy says.
Some experts think kids pay closer attention to things with sexual innuendo, because they hope to learn about sex.