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Mass Media May Prompt Kids to Try Sex: Study

TV, movies, CDs and magazines are surrogate sources of sex ed, researchers say

MONDAY, April 3, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Exposure to sexual content not only in movies and TV but also in music and magazines speeds up the sexual activity of white teens, increasing their chances of early intercourse, a new study contends.

The link between sex-filled media and early intercourse was not as apparent for black teens, who were found to be more influenced by parents and peers, said Jane D. Brown, the lead author of the study, which appears in the April issue of the journal Pediatrics.

"The unique part of this study is, we're finding this effect not only for television but for all four media content -- TV, movies, music and magazines," said Brown, the James L. Knight professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

While other studies have found similar links between watching adult content and early sexual activity, "We're the first to study them all together," Brown said.

"Kids who have a heavier sexual media diet when they are 12 to 14 years old are twice as likely as kids who have a lighter sexual media diet to have had sexual intercourse by the time they are 16," she said. "It seems to be pushing kids towards earlier sexual activity."

For the research, Brown and her colleagues conducted in-home surveys of 1,017 white and black teens from 14 middle schools in central North Carolina. Each teen was interviewed between the ages of 12 to 14, and again two years later. The researchers weighed the frequency of exposure to adult-themed movies, TV shows, music CDs and magazines.

White teens in the top fifth of the "sexual media" diet when 12 to 14 years of age were more than twice as likely to have had intercourse by age 14 to 16, compared to those ranking in the lowest fifth.

The same finding did not hold true black teens. Brown's team found other factors were more likely to predict whether they would have early intercourse, such as parental disapproval of teen sex.

By age 16, according to the study, 55 percent of the white teens who had the most exposure to sexual content had started having sexual intercourse, compared to 6 percent of those in the lowest segment.

Why do some kids watch much more sexually driven content than others? "We think it is related to puberty," Brown said. "As kids are maturing, they are looking for information. And we think the media become a kind of a sexual 'super peer.' The other place they might be learning about sex are often reticent [to supply information] -- parents, schools, churches, are just saying 'Just say no,'" she said, explaining why some teens turn to the media for sex education.

Another expert, Freya Sonenstein, a professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the study was "carefully executed" but "doesn't settle the question of whether sexy media produces, causes early sexual behavior. Is it the fact that they look at these shows that gets them active, or are they more curious about everything to begin with? Or are there other factors?"

Brown agreed, saying the new study did not reveal a direct cause and effect. "It's very hard to establish causality," she said. But, "it's as strong a linkage as we have seen. It's a very strong association."

Brown and Sonenstein agreed the study has some practical implications for parents. "'Parents should be alert," Sonenstein said. "This [frequent use of adult media] can be a signal to parents that these kids might start sexual behavior earlier."

Parents must be aware not only of what their teens are watching on TV but "what they are listening to with their earplugs in," Sonenstein added.

Brown agreed. Her team evaluated about 270 songs, many of which were filled with sexually charged lines. "More than 40 percent of the lyric lines involved sexuality," she said.

Parents "need to start talking to their kids early," Brown said. "As soon as kids want to know what those parts of their bodies are. You need to be expressing your values about sexuality early and often. Be what we call an 'askable' parent, so your child can come to you, instead of the media, to learn about sex. If the teen perceives that their parents disapprove of early sexual intercourse, the teen is less likely to do it."

More information

To learn more, visit Talking With Kids.

SOURCES: Jane D. Brown, Ph.D., M.A., James L. Knight professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Freya Sonenstein, Ph.D,, professor in the Center for Adolescent Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore; April 2006, Pediatrics
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