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TV Sex, Teens and Pregnancy: Scientific Proof of What We Already Knew


Usually at least once a month a new media effects study makes news in the popular press, but this month's "Big News" is additionally significant.


What most of these studies revolve around the effects of violence, advertising or sleeping with a cell phone under your pillow on young people, the latest big study tells us that we have learned that teens who watch lots of sexually charged television shows are more likely to be involved in a teen pregnancy.


The study's lead author, Anita Chandra, who is also a behavioral scientist at RAND -- the research organization that spearheaded this and many other important media effects studies -- says on MSNBC that she was "surprised to find this link."


I suspect scientists have to say those things otherwise they would be deemed as being too subjective, but personally I'm not the least bit surprised. However, lest you think I may be dismissing this effort, which is noted as "the first of its kind" to find a link between sex on TV and teen pregnancy rates, as irrelevant news, let me assure you I appreciate the work behind it and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development for funding it. No matter how obvious we may think the cause and effect relationship is, the nature of science demands proof, and now we have it.


Lets take a moment to see what exactly has been discovered...


Starting in the spring of 2001, researchers gathered data from a national sample of 2,003 youth aged 12 to 17 years old, with follow-up interviews in 2002 and 2004. During the sessions, the respondents were asked about how frequently they viewed certain TV programs that ranged across the spectrum of live-action and animated shows found on both broadcast and cable channels.


When they called back in 2004, an unfortunate number had spent the past few years doing more than watching TV. 744 of the kids said they had experienced sexual intercourse. 91 -- 58 girls and 33 boys -- admitted they had been pregnant or were responsible for getting a girl pregnant. After correlating these sexual behaviors with the types of television programs viewed, it was determined those teens who watched the most sexual content on television were twice more likely to have been involved in a pregnancy when compared to those with the least amount of sex-on-TV exposure.


Chandra says other factors were considered, including how well the teen was doing in school, what type of family they lived in and what their parents' education level was. The impact of these variables was accounted for in the final results.


As with all studies, and especially one that presents a new relationship between popular media and viewers, there is bound to be those who refute Chandra's claims. On the medical journal Pediatrics web site, where the full study can be read (for a fee), Frederick E. Pratter, Associate Professor in the Computer Science Program at Eastern Oregon University wonders if researchers considered the "possibility that teens who are sexually active might be more likely to watch programming that reflects their interests?"


On MSNBC's web site, Elizabeth Schroeder, who directs a teen sex-ed program at Rutgers University, says things like income and family values were external variables the "study didn't adequately address."


Far be it for me to contend with such knowledgeable academics, but I will anyway...


The authors of this study note that teen pregnancy rates have declined since 1991, but tell us that nearly one million American girls become pregnant each year, and most of these are unplanned. While I agree there are many factors aside from media (a point heavily noted within this study) that may influence young people to become sexually active, a previous 2004 RAND study (also funded by the same institute) showed a link between sexual content on TV and earlier involvement in sexual activity. But, as logical as it may seem, this earlier study did not investigate whether early sexual behavior lead to teen pregnancies.


Perhaps an even better comparison seems deceptively simple: If the porn industry makes its monster profits by affecting the hormones of mature, intelligent adults who have supposedly mastered self-control, how could we possibly think teenagers would react differently when watching sexually laced television programs?


Yes, perhaps some "naturally" promiscuous teens seek tantalizing television, but it appears very scientifically possible that for those who are reasonably neutral to such activities watching large amounts of sex on TV could influence them to experiment.


What can parents do to help the situation? Chandra suggests that in today's sexually saturated culture, it's nearly impossible to have kids insulated from messages about sex that don't carry potential consequences for depicted actions (she notes consequences for sexual actions are missing from many TV programs). Instead, she suggests the same time-tested strategy of having parents take the time to watch television together with their children and help interpret the frank sexual portrayals on the screen.


Of course, that's getting tougher to do, thanks to the myriad of ways young people can now access entertainment. When the National Association of Broadcasters was asked what they thought of the study, they said they hadn't read it, but encouraged parents to "use the V-chip."


Thus far, I haven't found a V-chip inside a portable video player, cell phone, iPhone or iPod...


Nevertheless, no matter how difficult, it is imperative that parents consider the material their children and teens are choosing to watch. Portrayals of fun and recreational sexual pastimes without any negative outcomes continue to fill our television screens, making this topic one of the biggest lies propagated by popular culture and mass media.


Rod Gustafson

Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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