Kids between the ages of 8 and 12 are often labeled "tweens," and a scene at Boston's Fayerweather Street School illustrates the term: While kids in one area of the school set up a video game on a computer, others nearby cloak themselves in fabric and pretend to be monsters.
While old enough to be media-savvy and technically proficient, tweens are still young enough to engage in imaginative play -- and often too young to process much of the sexual content that comes their way on the screen and in music.
Connie Biewald, who has been teaching sex education at Fayerweather for 18 years, says that kids haven't changed much. "They don't really know a lot more, really, in terms of deep understanding," Biewald says. "But they're exposed to a lot more than they used to be exposed to."
Even content that is tailor-made for kids may seem surprisingly grown-up to some listeners. Kidz Bop, a best-selling series featuring studio singers covering well-known songs while accompanied by a chorus of kids. The albums have been extremely successful, and earlier this year, Kidz Bop 9 debuted at No. 2 on Billboard's top albums chart.
Kidz Bop creator Craig Balsam says the music, which is marketed on TV, attracts kids as young as 4 years old. But its 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 cool and – well -- sexy.
"It's hard to have a brand for kids that has absolutely no edge," says Balsam. "I really think they would be completely disinterested."
Parents daily face innumerable decisions about the way their kids interact with the media. Letting an 8-year-old listen to music that's a little sexy, or watch certain TV programs, seems pretty innocent compared to some alternatives. So the question becomes: Where does a parent draw the line?
Samantha Skey, a vice president at Alloy Media + Marketing, says that tweens are still very influenced by their parents, who hold the purse strings and thus are involved in the buying decisions.
"There is significantly less rebellion in young people today ... and a more aspirational relationship between parent and child," Skey points out.
Recent research from the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention and other sources seem to confirm Skey’s assessment; suicide rates, teen pregnancy and drug use are all down.
But Wheelock College Professor Diane Levin still sees cause for concern. She’s writing a book about kids and the media, and says that our culture is so saturated with sexual images that some parents may not realize how their children process those images. She cautions parents to consider where it all may end.
"Think about how [it looks] through their eyes, what kinds of understandings can they make," Levin says. "It's harder and harder to think about what it means for someone who's fresh, who doesn't understand, who can't think the way we do."
Experts say that communication is the most potent line of defense; even the most careful parents can't be with their kids all the time.