MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
We're going to continue now with our series on children and the media. TV shows, movies, music and the web are filled with messages and images about sex. And tweens, kids roughly between the age of 8 and 12, are especially vulnerable to early sexualization. That's because, as marketers point out, they are age aspirational. Simply put, that means they like to act older.
As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, even the most careful parents may not be able to shield their kids from the onslaught of sex at an early age.
LYNN NEARY: You might be surprised to hear what some 4-year-olds are listening to these days.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: Seems like just yesterday that you were a part of me. I used to stand so tall. I used to be so strong.
NEARY: This is the opening cut on Kidz Bop 9, which debuted as number 2 on Billboard's top albums chart earlier this year. Kidz Bop is a best selling series featuring studio songs featuring studio singers covering well known songs accompanied by a chorus of kids.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: I'm barely hanging on. Here I am, once again. I'm falling to pieces.
NEARY: Kidz Bop is the brain child of Craig Balsam and his partner at the entertainment company Razor and Tie. About six years ago, Balsam says, they noticed there wasn't much music for kids who had outgrown Barney and Sesame Street.
CRAIG BALSAM: We thought, okay, there's a real big gap between what children want to hear when they're 2, 3 years old and what they want to hear and what they really are allowed to hear when they're teens.
NEARY: The music is marketed on TV, and Balsam says it attracts kids as young as 4, though the biggest audience is probably 8 to 10 years old, the sweet spot of the tween market. While Kidz Bop does change some lyrics for its young audience, most of the songs are hip and, well, sexy. This, says Balsam, is the music kids want to hear.
BALSAM: You know, it's hard to have a brand for kids that has absolutely no edge. I really think they would be completely disinterested.
NEARY: At the Nova Institute in suburban Washington, about 100 parents attended a day long conference on raising kids in a commercial culture. They listened to speakers like Susan Linn talk about the marketing juggernaut aimed at their children. Lynn, author of Consuming Kids, says it's no accident that even young children are listening to sexy music, wearing sexy clothes and seeing sexy images on TV and in the movies.
SUSAN LINN: What the marketing industry does is say, 6-year- olds want to be like teenagers. Let's market to them as if they are teenagers. But what's happening is that kids are getting the trappings of maturity earlier, but there's no evidence that their emotional development is keeping up.
NEARY: Linn led a small group discussion about how parents deal with the media and marketing. There are regulations on direct marketing to kids under the age of 13 online. But many kids' websites are tied to products and parents say advertising on television, radio and in magazines is relentless. Even the local mall has displays that some parents find offensive. A lot of parents, like Brenda Frontstead Barvo(ph), say they feel overwhelmed.
BRENDA FRONTSTEAD BARVO: The numbers, the billions and billions of dollars that are going into marketing to tweens, for instance, the subject here, you know, no family, even the best family, can completely combat that.
NEARY: But others, like Christine Watson, are tough on their fellow parents.
CHRISTINE WATSON: We don't want to lead. We don't want to be in charge. We don't want to be the parent. We want to compromise. And while that may be okay with your peers or your colleagues or neighbors, it is not okay with our little children, because our children need to have parents who are willing to stand up and take the lead.
NEARY: Tweens, says marketing specialist Samantha Skey, are still very influenced by their parents, who have to be involved in all buying decisions since they still hold the purse strings. And Skey, a vice president of Alloy Marketing and Media, says kids are not engaging in more risky behavior now than they have in the past.
SAMANTHA SKEY: There is significantly less rebellion in young people today, significantly lower. Suicide rates lower, teen pregnancy rates lower, drug use with everything except prescription drugs and there's a much closer relationship and a much more sort of aspirational relationship between parent and child. I think that really balances the notion that they have, that they are getting older, younger based on their sort of ever-increasing control over media.
NEARY: Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources confirms that suicide rates, teen pregnancy and drug use are down.
Still, says Diane Levin, a professor at Wheelock College in Boston, parents must make innumerable decisions on a daily basis about the way their kids interact with the media. Letting an 8-year-old listen to music that's a little sexy or watching TV programs that show 12-year-olds acting like 21-year-olds seems pretty innocent compared to a lot of what is out there. The question is where to draw the line.
Levin, who's writing a book about kids, sex and the media, says our culture is so saturated with sexual images that some parents may have lost sight of how their children take in that kind of information.
DIANE LEVIN: Think about, how does it look through their eyes. What kinds of understandings can they make, not what does it mean to us. And as we're more and more desensitized to what's going on, as we've gotten used to seeing what exists, it's harder and harder, then, to think about what it means for someone who's fresh, who doesn't understand, who can't think the way we do.
BLOCK: And then there's another site that you have to go in. And it's penguin tips. There's a form that I'll show you. This is how you do it. Because the thing takes robots.
NEARY: At the after school program at the Fayerweather school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, kids are setting up a video game on a computer in the school library. Nearby, some other kids are wrapping themselves in big pieces of fabric, pretending to be monsters. This is what it really means to be a tween. On the brink of adolescence they are technically proficient and media savvy, but still young enough to get lost in imaginative play.
Connie Biewald has been teaching sex education at Fayerweather for 18 years. She says the world may have changed, but kids haven't.
CONNIE BIEWALD: Kids are still the same and they don't really know a lot more, really, in terms of deep understanding, but they are exposed to a lot more than they used to be exposed to. So while a fifth grader still has the same, you know, attitudes about being sexual with another person, which at age 10, it's a pretty gross idea. They're just exposed to so much and they see so much that I think they get really confused.
NEARY: It takes some patience and lots of experience to settle down a class of 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds who are gathering to talk about sex.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING KIDS)
NEARY: Some of these kids come from families who place strict limits on their media use. One boy laments the fact that his family TV set has only two channels. But others, especially those with older siblings, say their parents pretty much let them do what they want when it comes to movies, TV and video games. None of the children mentioned the V-chip, a device which allows parents to block certain programs.
Still, 12-year-old Abraham and 11-year-old Lauren didn't have to go out of their way to see and hear things they found disturbing.
ABRAHAM: Like on TV, like the news, news and like shows and stuff, stuff they talk about like girls have been raped and I just don't really feel comfortable with that. Like CSI and stuff like that, those type of shows.
LAUREN: After I go to bed, my mom is like addicted to those shows. And sometimes I'll hear it, and like I'll hear someone and like sometimes on those shows someone get ill, like show someone getting raped, and I'll hear it and I really don't want to hear it and I'll tell my mom to turn the TV down. But I never actually tell her that I feel uncomfortable. I'm feeling embarrassed.
NEARY: As the discussion about the media and sex goes on, a kind of manic giddiness punctuates the conversation. At one point, 11-year-old David starts talking about playing the video game Grand Theft Auto.
DAVID: Grand Theft Auto, you can go to like a strip mall and that really grosses you out. Even though it's, like, computerized. It's really weird.
NEARY: What do you mean a strip mall?
DAVID: Like, you go there and there's just like people like hanging on poles who are naked. You can kill people.
NEARY: People meaning women?
DAVID: Yeah. And some men. But in like cages. But then you go and kill them and everything. It's really weird.
NEARY: Video games are not the only place where kids see images they can't really understand. Biewald steers the conversation to the subject of pornography.
BIEWALD: How many of you have seen pornography on the internet?
NEARY: Virtually every child in the room has seen pornography, and as 11-year- old Nasim(ph) and 12-year-old Jeffrey(ph) explain, it mostly happens by accident.
NASIM: You know, mostly kids don't, you know, look for it. You just by accident stumble on it. Like Google searches, you don't even have to type anything about it. You'll search like, you know, whatever, you know. Something that's -
JEFFREY: It's like Pokemon and then -
NASIM: Yeah. And then somehow it comes up and you get these websites.
NEARY: How old were you when this first happened to you?
NASIM: Like six.
JEFFREY: I had to be around seven, because I searched something on Google. I forget what it, I don't remember. And then it had a picture of a woman going like, and I was like, ugh. I was like that's not cool.
NEARY: Fifth grader Jonah says all the kids agree on one thing. They don't tell their parents when it happens.
JONAH: If there's a pop up and you just close it, there's really no harm done. So, I mean, and if you do tell your parents, then you might get in a little trouble. So why risk getting in a tiny bit of trouble when if you don't tell, nothing's gonna happen anyway?
NEARY: As the class ends, Biewald says parents need to know what their kids are seeing and doing with the media. And they need to talk to them about it. Communication, the experts say, is the most potent line of defense, because even the most careful parents can't be with their kids all the time.
One Massachusetts father learned that lesson when his 8-year-old told him he had seen porn online at a friend's house. This family had taken all the precautions. They don't let the kids watch TV or go to the movies. They have parental controls on their computer. The dad asked to remain anonymous to protect his son's identity.
BLOCK: As I recall, he said that he had seen lots of breasts and had seen naked men and women together.
NEARY: The boy also saw a graphic depiction of a sex act. This father says his son was embarrassed and afraid to talk about it.
BLOCK: I told him that wasn't trying to push him and I wasn't going to punish him. I just needed to understand what he had seen so that I could explain it to him and try to give him a context for understanding why things like this exist and so on. And that, in fact, was one of his real questions. Of things that I think he was most unsettled by, was, daddy, why are these things there and why does anyone want to look at that stuff? That is what I think what confused him the most.
NEARY: This dad is a realist about the media. He knew with all the protections he had in place, it was only a matter of time before his children might see something they weren't ready for emotionally. The only real surprise was that it happened so young, because to this dad, his 8-year-old son is not a tween. He's a child.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
NORRIS: Parents have always tried to control what their children are exposed to. You can read about how two generations of one family have battled over Barbie dolls at our website, NPR.org.