In a report confirming what common sense had long told us, a new study published in the scientific journal Pediatrics found that watching TV programs containing sexual content makes teenagers more likely to get pregnant or get someone pregnant.
The study used a methodology that actually traced the real connection between viewing habits and teen pregnancy, as the Chicago Sun-Times reports:
The research was based on a 2001 survey of 2,000 12- to 17-year-olds who were asked how often they watched any of 23 popular TV shows, ranging from cartoons and comedies to adult-themed shows such as "Sex and the City."
Follow-up interviews were done years later to see how many of them got pregnant in their teen years or were responsible for a pregnancy.
The result was statistically conclusive and quite powerful:
Teens who watched shows where sex was regularly shown or discussed had two to three times the risk of pregnancy than young people exposed to lower levels of sexual content, the study said.
Interestingly and importantly, the young people’s actions were affected by the ideas presented, not only by actual depictions of activities—the very mention of sexual topics had an effect, the Sun-Times story noted:
"Even shows that had a little bit of sexual talk"—but didn’t show sex acts—". . . were still powerful in terms of the relationship to teen pregnancy," said Anita Chandra, a behavioral scientist for the Rand Corp. who was the study’s lead author.
Chandra added an important observation in the story:
One possible reason, according to Chandra: TV shows tend to focus on the positive aspects of sex, not possible consequences.
"That may make teens more likely to initiate sex earlier, before they’re really ready to make responsible choices and find ways to protect themselves," she said
That is a crucial distinction that must be taken into account when discussing violence and sexual content in the media and their effect on children. Often in these discussions the point will be made that some people who want to limit children’s exposure to sexual content in media products don’t seem to object as strongly to depictions of violence. Thus such people are being hypocritical, they say.
As this study shows, however, there is a crucial and essential difference between depictions (or even discussions) of sex and of violence in the arts: the bad consequences of violence are readily apparent, whereas the bad consequences of sexual license are often far removed in time and space from the actual events. Thus whereas depictions of violence have built-in moral messages, discussions and depictions of sexual behavior do not.
As a result of her study, Chandra says children’s exposure to sexual content in the media should be limited, and failing that, at least parents should watch the shows with their children and discuss the issues as they arise.