Children as young as nine are using internet chatrooms to talk about their sexual encounters, and, in most cases, their parents have no idea what they are up to, a study of pre-teen girls shows.
There is growing concern about sexualisation of "tweenies" - youngsters between childhood and the teenage years - via the internet, magazines, clothes, music, TV and cosmetic products.
The five-year study, the first of its kind, looked into the sexual behaviour of 1,300 pre-teens, and revealed that, on the internet at least, young girls' lives are "filled with sexual behaviour of one sort or another". It concludes that almost all parents are "virtually clueless" about what their daughters are up to.
"The girls overwhelmingly report that their parents are unaware of their sexual chatting on the internet, even though it occurred regularly throughout the day," says Joan Atwood, who led the study. "These girls are at risk for pregnancy and for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, [and for] the psychological effects. The data also indicate the girls do not think about the consequences of their sexual behaviour."
The study involved girls aged eight to 13 in several countries, including the UK, US, Australia and Canada, who used chatrooms. Researchers contacted the girls anonymously through a major chatsite, and recorded their online conversations, some lasting several hours.
Some girls had webcams, allowing other web-users to see them as they typed; others used voice communication or posted pictures. Three-quarters of the girls claimed to have had sexual intercourse, and only a small number had not performed some sexual activity. Dr Atwood said: "In 95 per cent of cases, the participants reported that their parents did not have a clue they were chatting on the internet, that they were chatting with older individuals, or that they had been engaging in sexual activity."
Parents mistakenly believed sex education would ensure their children would steer clear of risky behaviour, she added. But the study showed girls as young as nine were sexually active. "They appear to be well-versed in sexual terms and behaviours. In some cases, the girls are forced into sexuality by a relative; in other cases, they appear to engage freely in sex with their boyfriends; in yet other cases they are forced by an older male."
Of the pre-adolescent girls who discussed sexual activity, nearly a third were younger than 12, and 8 per cent were under 10. "[Parents] believe education is empowerment and they have educated their youngsters about sex," Dr Atwood said. "Therefore, their children won't do it or if they do, they will be responsible and sensible. Wrong."
Chris Cloke, the head of child protection awareness at the NSPCC, said the results reflected other research that has shown young girls are increasingly exposed to sexual images and language. "We are very concerned that young children are living in an ever more sexual environment," he said. "They face pressure from the media, from adverts and increasingly from the internet. All this can make children more sexually aware and can lead them to sexual activity for which they are not ready."
The study again highlights growing concern about sexually precocious behaviour in young girls, with many reporting that they feel pressured into sex at an early age. Teen websites and magazines and high-street retailers have repeatedly come under fire for inappropriate sexual imagery and language. Last year, Asda withdrew pink and black lace lingerie, including a push-up bra marketed to nine-year-olds, after complaints from parents.
The retailer Bhs was forced to withdraw underwear with a "Little Miss Naughty" logo. The company initially rejected parents' concerns, saying the bras and pants were "harmless fun". The clothing retailer Next faced criticism for selling T-shirts for girls under six bearing the slogan, "So many boys, so little time".
Teachers say young girls are bombarded with sexual content in teen magazines including Bliss, CosmoGirl and Sugar which are aimed those aged 12 to 18 but are often read by much younger children. In 2004, Sugar provoked outrage with a 12-page publicity feature on sexual health in a sponsorship deal with the condom manufacturer Durex.
Britain's four million tweens have an estimated spending power of £3.1bn a year, but marketing experts say their real power comes from the influence they have on their parent's shopping choices. A study in June showed 61 per cent of adults will "occasionally or always" defer to their tweenage children when buying music or DVDs. This increase in commercial pressure, plus developments in technology, has transformed the way children interact with the world and increased their exposure to sexual imagery, said Mr Cloke.
NSPCC research showed one in 10 children had been asked intimate sexual questions in chatrooms, and more than a third of teenage girls have had sexually explicit messages, pictures or videos on their mobile phones. Dr Atwood said the internet has transformed the way young people communicate, but she warned that research into the content of teenage and pre-teen chatrooms on the internet is "practically non-existent".
Her report said: "The diary with lock and key is a thing of the past. Now young people write their innermost feelings, their sexual thoughts and behaviours in a journal uploaded on the internet for the world to read. Their blogs or personal web pages contain information that 25 years ago would have been hidden in their diary in a secret place. Many young people have computers in their rooms and stay up till all hours messaging their friends while their parents are sleeping."
The report quotes one 10-year old. "I've just kissed guys. He was 11. My mom and dad think that I just chat with friends online. They don't know I go into chatrooms."
One nine-year-old said: "I've done sex. I do it lots when we go on holiday. The first time I did it I was six. We go to a nudist place in England. I do it with people of all ages."
The researchers, whose findings are to be reported in the American Journal of Family Therapy, agree they cannot say whether some girls were reporting fantasy rather than fact, but Dr Atwood said the results are still useful for describing the sexual lives of young girls.
"Sexual intercourse used to be something a person did when he or she got married. Then it became something she/he did in college. Now it appears it is something young people do in high school. In the present study, many have had intercourse even earlier than that."
Additional reporting by Claire O'Boyle
TARGET 10-YEAR-OLDS: A £3.1BN MARKET
Sales of tween magazines are worth around £1.6m per month, but titles such as Cosmo Girl, Girl Talk and Bliss are regularly criticised for their frank, sexual content. In 2004 teachers called for age limits on the magazines after Sugar published a 12-page feature in partnership with the condom manufacturer Durex.
Hollywood has long known the value of the market, churning out a stream of movies aimed at the eight- to 13-year-old audience. Films featuring pubescent actresses such as Hilary Duff include Agent Cody Banks and The Lizzie McGuire Movie. Tween icons Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are said to be worth £79m each.
The UK market in children's clothing and accessories is estimated at more than £5bn a year. Bhs, Asda, Argos and Next have been criticised for marketing thongs, padded bras, mini-skirts and other sexually inappropriate clothes. Woolworths, M&S and Boots have introduced accessory and make-up lines targeting the market.
British youngsters aged between eight and 16 are reported to be spending as much as £50m a month on music downloads and CDs. Girls Aloud, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears are all tween idols, despite - or perhaps because of - the overtly sexual nature of their lyrics.Reuse content