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
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
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
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
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
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
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...
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.
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.
and the Media by Rod Gustafson
Television Council -
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