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The Blame Game

Experts debate the media's role in influencing teen attitudes on sex

SUNDAY, Oct. 7, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The media is almost every American parent's favorite punching bag when it comes to assigning blame for the nation's high rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

And at a recent forum sponsored by members of the U.S. Senate, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) joined the chorus of media critics troubled by salacious movies, TV shows and music.

"Early sexual intercourse and risky sexual behavior among our young people is a concern of pediatricians and a major public health problem in America today," says Dr. Michael Rich, a member of the AAP's Committee on Public Education.

"We're trying to look at all of the factors that influence young people's choices on sexual behavior, and those certainly include the media," Rich, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital in Boston, adds.

Rich says young people often tell him the media is one of their leading sources of information about sex. Yet, he adds, little of that information is practical.

"Each year, television and movies offer 14,000 sexual portrayals, of which only 165 deal with risks of pregnancy, HIV or other STDs [sexually transmitted diseases]," Rich told the senators.

"It seems unrealistic that society should place the sole blame on our young people for engaging in early and unsafe sex when they have so much exposure to irresponsible sexual messages and portrayals in media," he added.

According to the most recent AAP figures, 61 percent of all high school seniors have had sexual intercourse, about half are currently sexually active, and 21 percent have had at least four partners.

Of particular concern is the fact that, while other developed countries have similar rates of early sexual intercourse, the United States has one of the highest teen-age pregnancy rates in the world and the highest adolescent rates of sexually transmitted diseases.

But child psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Berger says it's too simplistic to blame the media for the pregnancy and STD epidemics. Parents must shoulder some of the blame, she says.

"When watching a show like, for instance, "Baywatch," insecure little girls may certainly think they need to get their breasts enlarged or dress a certain way to be acceptable in the world," says Berger, the author of Raising Children With Character: Parents, Trust and the Development of Personal Integrity.

"But you have to ask how the child became insecure to begin with," she adds. "It was not because of the TV message, but because of the development of her own image of herself, and the emotional messages and input going back to her earliest years."

Berger theorizes that some kids who are easily influenced by sex in the media may be suffering from an emotional vacuum probably fostered by an insecure upbringing.

"If you study children, nothing is clearer than the idea that children with a more stable home life and stronger self-images are not as susceptible to being impressionable as those who don't have that," Berger says.

"It comes down to a concept of leadership," she adds. "The parents fear that the trouble their youngsters are in is due to the bad leadership they get from TV. But what about leadership that comes from the close, trusting relationship between the child and the parent? That can be much more influential."

Still, Rich says, in the real world of latch-key kids and other children who don't always receive ideal parenting, the media will continue to be an undeniable influence.

"Fingers are always pointed at someone else," Rich says. "The media producers say, 'It's not my problem, it's the parents' problem.' And parents say, 'I can't sit and watch every show with my kid; the producers should clean up their act.' "

"I think what we have to do is take a step back from the blaming and face facts," he adds. "The No. 1 source of information about sex cited by kids is media. So if they're learning about sex from the media, then we better be sure what they're learning is what we think they should be learning. We need to do that by not just monitoring and responding to what is in media, but also giving parents the tools in terms of discussing those issues with the kids."

What to Do: Visit this AAP site to see how pediatricians can address the media's effects on their adolescent patients' sexual attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. And visit Connect for Kids: Guidance for Grown-ups for more information relating to your children.

SOURCES: Interviews with Michael Rich, M.D., MPH, FAAP, pediatrician, Children's Hospital, Boston, and member, AAP Committee on Public Education; Elizabeth Berger, M.D., child psychiatrist, author of Raising Children With Character: Parents, Trust and the Development of Personal Integrity; AAP press release
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