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Girls Growing Up Too Fast

Influences Beyond TV Characters -- and the Actresses Who Play Them

Still, sex-tinged kids' TV has been around for a couple of decades. So why are girls today more precocious than just five years ago? Because a whole other pop culture avalanche has hit, experts say. For starters, we've got tons of teen idols now, including Miley Cyrus (the real-life Hannah Montana) and Demi Lovato, star of the Disney TV movie Camp Rock. "Even little kids look up to them," says M. Gigi Durham, author of The Lolita Effect (Overlook Press).

These teen stars and their characters may seem mild (say, compared with the Britneys, Lindsays, and Jessicas in the headlines or even the adolescents on your block), but much of what they do and say is still over the top for tweens. "When younger girls watch them they see ways of behaving, looking, and feeling that would otherwise be outside their world," Levin says.

And now teen idols are also prime paparazzi fodder. As their personal slipups are relentlessly captured and widely publicized, even their littlest fan's consciousness is being raised in ways her parents hoped wouldn't happen for years. Donna Miller of Summit, New Jersey, faced this recently. Her daughter Lucie, 8, loves the show Zoey 101, whose star, Jamie Lynn Spears (Britney's sis), gave birth earlier this year at 17. "I tried to explain what was wrong with the whole situation," says Donna. "Lucie's answer was, 'But she and her boyfriend love each other, and you said love is important!' I think I communicated our family values about sex and babies in a way that didn't confuse Lucie. But she's so young. I'm not sure she understood all the nuances."

Certainly, fawning coverage of the birth didn't help clarify things for young fans. One tabloid cover featured a glowing picture of the teenage Spears cuddling with her daughter, calling motherhood "the best feeling in the world." Parents are still the main influence on their daughters, but kids have got to be confused when they're bombarded with contradictory messages.