Little Women: Are Girls Growing Up Too Quickly?

RENO, Nev. We all had those awkward moments growing up as we transitioned from kids into adults and tried to find out who we were. But thanks to the growth of social media and the power of the internet, could we be forcing kids to go through that transition at a younger age? Items that use to be a right of passage for young women are now showing up in little girl aisles next to Barbie and My Little Pony. Or are marketers just responding to a change in social norms?

At 8-years-old, Madelynn Bellin says she's more interested in dressing up her dolls than dressing like an adult.

"There's a girl in my class who wears a padded bra," she said. "I just think it looks weird."

That response could perhaps be a credit to the way she was raised.

"I'm very careful as to what she's exposed to," Madelynn's mom, Lynnette said. "She doesn't have open access to the internet. She doesn't have open access to a tablet or a smart phone."

Something Bellin feels she was forced to do because the outside world is filled with images and role models she doesn't want her daughter exposed to.

"There was the whole Miley Cyrus at the VMA's scandal, Madelynn didn't see that," Bellin said. "But we did have a conversation about other pop stars who get attention for things like their voice or talent and not bad behavior."

It's not just what kids can see online or on TV that has parents concerned. It's becoming more common for items like padded bras and high heels to be marketed to girls as young as five or six.

But while parents cry foul, could marketers just be following a disturbing social trend?

Doctor Amanda Mangrini, a family doctor here in Northern Nevada says she has seen more and more girls barely out of their toddler years showing signs of puberty.

"Traditionally we see puberty start to set in around the age of 8 or 9," Dr. Mangrini said. "But it's becoming more and more common that we're seeing kids 6 or 7 years old starting to develop breast buds."

And the changes, doctors say, could affect kids mentally.

"It can be really hard on these kids when they're the one developing breasts and no one else in their class is," Dr. Mangrini said. "They start to think of themselves differently. They're having to think about wearing bras and they're thinking about boys more."

And dressing like a woman is turning into more than young girls trying on their mother's heels. This

"This dress up is the new normal," Doctor Ethan Steever, a child psychologist said. "You're not dressing up. This is what you're suppose to look like just to be normal. It's not play anymore."

Dr. Steever says in the past ten years he has seen a shift in the age children start dealing with certain issues.

"Just in the time I've been in practice, I've seen things that teenagers would have been dealing with ten years ago, I'm working with with 4th graders," he said.

The change, he says, may come from a combination of kids entering puberty earlier and how much access they have to information.

"I'm talking with 9 year olds about things like boyfriends and body image problems. I think it causes a lot of stress because they're not ready to handle that yet."

Which is why Bellin takes such a protective role when it comes to exposing her daughter to the world.

"The oversexualization, it's happening out there, but it's happening because people are buying these products," she said.

So are marketers following a trend, or creating one?

"Most advertisers would say, 'We follow trends'," Bob Felten, professor of advertising at the University of Nevada, Reno said. "But at a minimum you probably amplify trends."

Felten says he does think there are places advertisers have gone too far when selling products to kids. But the line can be hard to find.

"This is a personal observation, I can't identify it with any specific research, but I think as young women have matured and become mothers, they have a different sense of what's appropriate than their mothers did," Felten said.

He points to things like two-piece bikinis for little girls or hip hop classes as things younger mothers may find appropriate for their daughters.

"When we're talking about young mothers, we're not talking about someone who is 45 generally," he said "We're talking about someone who is 25-35 and they've grown up in a different kind of culture and a different kind of environment. So it's a difficult question: What is appropriate and ethical, and what crosses the line? When does cute become creepy?"

Bellin says parents should take more responsibility for what influences are in their daughters lives instead of blaming an outside force.

"It feels like a victim mentality where people are saying, 'Oh, the advertisers are doing this.' If you don't like it, don't buy it. You're not going to see my little girl in a two-piece bikini because I want her to be able to dive in the water and not worry about her top flying up. But I don't judge parents who let their daughters wear one."

"You vote with your dollars," Felten said. "In an open market place you can change what is being promoted by not buying certain items."

And the votes may be moving away from sex. Take Disney's 'Frozen' for example. It is the highest-grossing animated picture of all time, and the sixth biggest box office hit to date, with approximately $1.3 billion in worldwide box office sales. It is also being praised for changing the concept of 'true love' and the way girls think about Prince Charming.

"My wife got all excited in the end where it's like the prince asked to kiss her," Dr. Steever said. "Like that's so awesome. I've never seen that in a Disney movie."

"There's a lot of positive momentum that I think even Disney is catching on that we want strong female role models," Bellin said.

But sex will always sell, which is why experts recommend talking with your kids about why you think some things are not appropriate for them.

"You can try to shelter your kids from stuff but they're going to see it anyway," Dr. Steever said. "And if you make it into 'I'm trying very hard to hide from you that this even exists' then it's going to be hard to talk to them about it. They're not going to feel as open. The number one predictor of how they do long term? Is there someone there who listens to them, values them, guides them? If you have those things, those kids tend to turn out okay."

Back in Bellin's household, Madelynn's room is filled with the typical 'girl' items like Barbies and dress up clothes. But take a closer look and you'll only see characters her mom thinks are good role models, like Merida from 'Brave' and certain American Girl dolls.

"I strategically think for when I can't control it more or her friends are talking about it, I'm preparing her now," Bellin said. "All of these characters are strong females not focused on their appearances."

But Bellin recognizes the most influential role model in Madelynn's life is the one who tucks her in at night.

"I'm not concerned about what the media is doing," she said. "I'm concerned about what role models are in her life face to face because I think those are much stronger. How I talk about my own body and my own images of beauty is a lot more powerful than any billboard."


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