By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
A new study has found that adolescents who watch high levels of television programming containing sexual content are twice as likely to be involved in a pregnancy as peers who did not watch as many of these shows.
The new study, conducted among more than 2,000 teens by the RAND Corporation and published in the November edition of the journal Pediatrics, is the first to establish a link between teenagers’ exposure to sexual content on TV and either pregnancies among girls or responsibility for pregnancies among boys.
“Adolescents receive a considerable amount of information about sex through television and that programming typically does not highlight the risks and responsibilities of sex,” said Anita Chandra, the study’s lead author and a behavioral scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “Our findings suggest that television may play a significant role in the high rates of teenage pregnancy in the United States.”
Researchers say the reason for this is because exposure to sex on television may create the perception among teens that there is little risk to engaging in sex.
“The amount of sexual content on television has doubled in recent years,” Chandra said. “While some progress has been made, teenagers who watch television are still going to find little information about the consequences of unprotected sexual practices among the many portrayals promoting sex.”
Researchers focused on 23 programs popular among teenagers that were widely available on broadcast and cable television, and contained high levels of sexual content (both depictions of sex as well as dialogue or discussion about sex). The shows included dramas, comedies, reality programs and animated shows.
Chandra said the findings hold implications for broadcasters, parents and health care providers.
Broadcasters should be encouraged to include more realistic depictions of sex in scripts and to portray consequences such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Parents should consider limiting their children’s access to programming with sexual content and spending more time watching programs with their children so they can explain the consequences of sex. Pediatricians should also discuss the consequences of sexual activity with their teenaged patients.
“Clearly, early sexual activity on the part of teenagers leads to such negative consequences as sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancies—not to mention unseen emotional damage,” said Rick Schatz, president and CEO of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families. “The good news is that by helping their kids think critically about what they see on TV, parents can actually play an important role in helping prevent their kids from making bad choices.”
Schatz also noted this study should be a loud wake-up call for the broadcast and cable industries to offer programming that won’t send kids the message that sex with anybody at any time is free of consequences.
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