05/30/2012 12:08 pm ET

Teenage Cougars? Prom Trend Sees Girls Taking Younger Boys As Dates

Bringing a date from a lower grade level to prom is a ritual almost as old as the dance itself. Guys have long been asking sophomore and junior girls to prom, and because 1950s-style dating customs are no longer in fashion, girls also ask whoever they want to prom -- regardless of their age.

But recently, the trend of girls asking younger guys to prom has made national headlines. In a New York Times article, one writer claimed that her daughter forced her to ask herself a troubling question: "Can a 16-year-old be a cougar?" The mother explains that in her prom days (her date was both taller and older than her), she never would have considered taking a younger date. Now, she finds the fact that her daughter and her daughter's friends are taking a younger men to prom unsettling.

She writes: "Call it young cougars, a game of confidence or just female empowerment, but the unthinkable during my high school years is now happening all around me and other mothers of my acquaintance."

In response to the Times report, The Daily Mail declared that "a new legion of young 'cougars' is emerging."

So why are girls dating younger guys, and why does it matter? Many girls -- who don't express the same concerns as their parents -- are saying that younger boys are more respectful. Some of these young women are not just taking younger boys to prom, but are also in serious relationships with them.

In some cases, of course, major age differences in relationships can be a genuine cause for concern. Recently, a 41-year-old high school track coach in Oregon was fired after she took a 17-year-old athlete to prom.

And, beyond prom, the "cougar" fad has continued to spark strong reactions to the term at schools. A Utah high school's choice of cougars as their mascot was rejected because the school thought that middle-aged women might be offended. The Canyons School Board cited the current edition of the Webster Dictionary, which states that the word "cougar" is a slang term referring to "a middle-aged woman seeking a romantic relationship with a younger man."

Even in the pop culture world, so-called cougars and the men who date them are gossip-column fodder. Recently, One Direction singer Harry Styles responded to rumors about his interest in older women, stating: “I don’t know where the cougar thing came from, to be honest. I don’t know why people got that impression.” The 1D heartthrob claims that, despite the gossip, he prefers dating women his own age. On the other hand, Justin Bieber -- who is a year younger than girlfriend Selena Gomez, has stated that he would be open to dating anyone under 40.

What do you think -- is it OK to refer to a teenage girl who dates a younger boy as a "cougar"? Do age differences in relationships really matter? Tell us in the comments below or tweet @HuffPostTeen!