If teen idols are a trap for young girls, it's partly because their princess obsession laid the groundwork. In 2007 sales of Disney princess products totaled $4 billion. "To parents, the princesses seem relatively wholesome," says Levin, "but they do convey the message that you should spend a lot of time, energy, and money on looking pretty." What's more insidious is the way girls use them. "Give a girl a princess-type doll and she often doesn't invent ways to play with it," says Levin. "Instead, she'll act out a fairy tale script, having learned that the princess should be beautiful and seductive and catch the prince." The more time a girl plays this way, the more she'll focus on looks and coquettish behavior, and the less time she'll spend doing the open-ended activities kids need. "It puts girls on a conveyor belt to early sexualization," Levin says.
And merchandizing linked to girls' idols doesn't stop with dolls. According to a report by the NPD Group, girls 8 to 12 years old now spend $500 million a year on beauty products of all kinds, including those endorsed by their idols. Then there are the flirty fashions. "Where are the age-appropriate clothes?" asks Marie Ortiz of San Antonio, mom of 8-year-old Karina. "Even the kids' fashions at mass retailers look like they're for mini Paris Hiltons." It's a coast-to-coast lament as mothers of girls shop among racks of child-size swimsuits with padded chests and slinky underwear for 8-year-olds.
Of course, when it comes to the 7-going-on-16 phenomenon, it's easy to point a finger of blame everywhere else, but we also have to take a hard look at ourselves. It's not that parents want to shirk being gatekeepers. "There's just so much sex around, it's easy to stop noticing and drawing the line," Durham explains. But we've got to try.