May 14, 2010 -- 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."
What's a Parent to Do?
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.
And in some ways, some kids are always going to want to act older than they are, especially if they think it is cool, psychologists say.
It can be normal for kids to enjoy putting on a "more adult" role, says Judith Myers-Walls, associate professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University, but it's also important that children enjoy -- and are applauded for -- "being who they are now, not just for what they will become."
"If they do adult-like things earlier than most kids, what do they have to look forward to? What kind of dance moves will these girls add as they get older?" she asks.
Myers-Walls also points out that while the kids may love to dance, the choreography and the costumes are not designed by the children. "It's worth asking why the adults who work on this don't "create dances and costumes that celebrate childhood," she says.
Let Kids Be Kids, Experts Say
The parents shouldn't necessarily "feel guilty" about this incident, Gardere says, because most likely "they didn't want to make their kids look like sexpots," but they should learn that there are "emotional implications to these kinds of things and be smarter next time."
Melissa Presch, mother of one of the 8-year-old dancers, emphasized in an interview with "Good Morning America" that the dance is something the parents are all very proud of, but Myers-Walls cautions that this pride needs to be unconditional.
"From their parents, [these girls] need unconditional love that is not based on whether they win competitions, look sexy in a fancy costume, or fall on their faces."