Sexual Content on TV Spurs Teens Into Action

Those who watch it more likely to do it within a year's time

TUESDAY, Sept. 7, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Teenagers who view sexual content on television, even if it only involves characters talking about sex, are twice as likely to start having intercourse in the ensuing year compared with peers who do not watch such content.

Sexual content on TV was also more likely to hasten adolescents' movement from one "base" to another, in other words, from kissing to breast fondling to genital touching and on to oral sex, new research found.

"Regardless of which level kids were at the beginning of this study, watching more sex on TV was associated with a much higher probability of moving up along the continuum," said Rebecca Collins, senior author of the study, which appears in the September issue of Pediatrics.

"The effect was strongest for kids moving into the genital category [known in earlier generations as "heavy petting"]. They were about twice as likely to make that leap if they watched a lot of sex on TV, compared to their peers. The effect was weakest for kids moving in the very first stage," added Collins, a senior behavioral scientist at the Rand Corp. The only effect that was stronger was for those who engaged in actual intercourse, Collins added.

She said she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. "Just making small reductions to what kids are exposed to could make a significant difference in how quickly they develop sexually," she said.

According to the journal report, 46 percent of all high school students in the United States have had sexual intercourse. For every four sexually active teenagers, one case of a sexually transmitted disease (STD) is diagnosed. The rate of teen pregnancy in the United States is among the highest for all industrial countries. Both unplanned pregnancies and STDs are more common among individuals who start sexual activity earlier. The author also stated that most sexually active teens say they wish they had waited longer to have sex.

And while about two-thirds of programs currently on television contain sexual content, from talking to doing, there is little research on the subject.

Collins and her colleagues surveyed 1,792 adolescents aged 12 to 17 from across the nation about their TV viewing habits and sexual experience. The participants were surveyed twice, about one year apart.

While factors such as age, having older friends, getting lower grades and rule-breaking behavior were all associated with initiating sexual intercourse, television had the strongest effect.

Adolescents who watched the most sexual content-oriented TV at the beginning of the study were more likely to initiate intercourse during the following year. They were also more likely to advance in their "making out" stages.

However, the researchers also found that black youths who watched more depictions of sexual risks or safety measures were less likely to initiate sexual intercourse in the next year.

A child behavioral expert viewed the results of the study as an opportunity for what she termed a "teachable moment."

"For parents, this isn't necessarily a negative message, because there is other research showing that programs with sexual content provide good opportunities for parents to initiate conversations with children about these topics," said Suzanne Ryan, a research associate with Child Trends in Washington, D.C.

"This is an important study because it fills a very important hole in what we know," added Bill Albert, spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in Washington, D.C.

The problem could be attacked from a number of different directions, including getting kids to watch less TV and persuading the TV industry to show less sex, or at least to show the potential consequences of sex.

"If the media is a powerful force in shaping the social script for adolescents, it is also true that the media can be a force for good," Albert said. "I think you are seeing some major media outlets stepping up to the plate and addressing the sexual issue in a more responsible way."

"When we did a survey last year, it was very clear that a huge percentage of teens and adults say that they wish the media showed more or talked more about the consequences of sex, so there is a great support for these sorts of responsible messages," he added.

More information

For more on kids and TV, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics.

SOURCES: Rebecca Collins, Ph.D., senior behavioral scientist, Rand Corp., Santa Monica, Calif.; Bill Albert, spokesman, National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Washington, D.C.; Suzanne Ryan, Ph.D., research associate, Child Trends, Washington, D.C.; September 2004 Pediatrics
Consumer News