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Part 2 of a 3-part series on premature puberty

Published in Sun Media publications, March, 2008.

It’s a Saturday afternoon at an upscale mall in the west end of Toronto and the neighbourhood girls have come to show off their wares.

Gaggles of tween girls are lined up at the coffee shop ordering non-fat lattes, clutching $400 monogrammed brand name handbags.

They’ve brought L.A. to Toronto, wearing hip-hugging, bum-snug yoga pants or short micro-minis paired with trendy Ugg boots and a form-fitting top — a look meant to show off their womanliness, but which falls unconvincingly short.

Their grown-up clothes betray some undeniable truths: Straight hips, baby-fat bellies, and protruding breast buds that aren’t yet fully developed.

These girls are living out an important period in the evolution of human sexuality, a time many experts describe as the most sexualized in history.

HAS THE MEDIA TRIGGERED A BIOLOGICAL PHENOMENON?

Studies suggest the age of puberty among girls is declining — a topic of controversy that divides the medical community.

Could scandalously sex-laden images that are so ubiquitous in Western society trigger a biological response in children and explain earlier breast development in girls? Could we be complicit in bringing up a sexually precocious generation of children?

“I don’t think so,” said Dr. Jorge Pinzon, a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine at the Alberta Children’s Hospital.

“It’s speculative.”

But he goes on to say it’s not unfathomable.

“There is a close link between emotion, behaviour and biology.”

For example, the physical reaction of blushing and sweaty palms is a biological response to an intense emotion, Pinzon points out.

Some researchers have taken that notion further, studying the impacts of stress, dysfunctional family backgrounds, and how TV stimulation could also explain earlier pubertal development in girls.

In one British study, psychologists studied three generations of women and found that women from dysfunctional or broken homes were more likely to enter puberty earlier.

Researchers posited it could be an ancient evolutionary response that kicks in to ensure that her genes are passed on sooner than later.

DATING DADS REGULATE PUBERTY

Another American study theorized that exposure to unrelated adult males in the home also led to precocious maturity, while the onset of puberty was delayed among girls who had close relationships with their father.

The hypothesis goes that exposure to a stepfather’s pheromones as compared to a girl’s biological father, for example, could accelerate her sexual maturation.

But studies such as these which dare to stretch the scientific imagination beyond the strictly biological have found few believers in the medical community.

“Is this in the realm of possibility? Yes,” said Dr. Mark Palmert, pediatric endocrinologist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

“Do I think it’s likely? I don’t know if these are widely accepted theories.” And while stress may accelerate puberty, Palmert points out there’s more data to show that stress actually delays sexual development.

“In the general population, there’s always a U-curve.”

For example, girls who lived through war conditions, where they were nutritionally deprived and emotionally stressed, were more likely to get their periods late, as observed in Bosnia and Croatia.

“Psychology interacts with biology all the time,” added Dr. Susan Bradley, child psychiatrist at Sick Kids.

“There is an interaction between sex and stress hormones.”

A classic example is that when women experience stress, they lose their periods.

Likewise, studies have shown that when women live together, in a college dorm for example, menstrual cycles tend to fall in sync with each other, she pointed out.

“It’s as though there were some psychological driver that drives biology.”

THE ROLE OF RADIATION FROM TELEVISION

When Italian researchers denied children access to TV for just one week, the kids experienced a 30% jump in melatonin levels — a hormone that delays the early onset of puberty.

It’s another theory examining how modern lifestyles could be triggering earlier sexual development.

Melatonin is produced when it gets dark outside. But the light and radiation from TV and computer screens that children watch up to five hours a day, may be lowering the levels of melatonin production.

Never mind the content.

Parents blame teen icons like the scandal-plagued Britney Spears and her younger, pregnant sister Jamie-Lynn Spears for hurtling their young, impressionable daughters into moral depravity.

Thanks to the Internet, at no other time has access and availability to sexual images and pornography been more easy.

To borrow the chicken and egg analogy, which came first? The sex or the release of unfertilized egg?

Denise, whose daughter Emily developed breast buds at the age of four, doesn’t buy it.

“That’s a crock,” she said.

At the age of four, her daughter was still watching Sesame Street and was closely monitored.

Likewise, Teigen, who lives in Nova Scotia and is now 15 years old, was only 18 months when doctors confirmed she had developed breast buds and that her pituitary gland was already active.

Every generation has decried the next one as the most corrupt, adds Alex McKay of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada.

“Common wisdom held that the mere sight of Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips on TV lead to the moral collapse of society,” McKay said.

“Toronto police invaded a Madonna concert because she was wearing cones over her breasts. The prevailing wisdom was the end was near … Every generation is convinced that the generation after them will lead us over the edge.”

MONKEY-SEE, MONKEY-DO

Meanwhile, another study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2005 called the mass media a “sexual super peer” for early maturing girls.

“It may be that the earlier maturing girls are looking for information and norms in the media because their real-life peers are not as interested as they are in sex and sexuality,” states the article, led by Jane D. Brown. The article also points to a Swedish study that found Swedish girls who got their periods before the age of 11 were more likely to engage in sexual activity than girls who mature later. Earlier maturing girls were also more likely to interpret messages in the media as approval of teens having sex, the article said.

“When the media shows young people engaging in sexual activity, they glamourize it,” said child psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Levin from Windsor, Ont.

When the runaway hit movie Juno came out to wide acclaim, Maclean’s magazine put Ellen Page, who plays a pregnant teen, on the cover with a headline asking incredulously, “Suddenly teen pregnancy is cool?”

The movie, which has catapulted Page to stardom and made her a heroine for young girls in her fresh portrayal of teen angst, ends tidily.

“Stars don’t have financial burdens that a 13- or 14-year-old would have in raising an unwanted child,” Levin said.

While sexualized girls is a concern, McKay said the notion of “monkey-see, monkey-do” among children is too simplistic.

Outcomes are also influenced by factors like parental monitoring and peer norms, he said — “the fine print.”

The Brown study also points out that early maturing girls are less reliant on the media when they’ve had “early, comprehensive” sex education from school or from parents.

“Parents want to be educating their children from a very young age about their bodies,” McKay said.

“To me, by the time the child has entered puberty, if there is no understanding of the human reproduction, they’re not properly informed.”

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