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The Effects of Televised Sexual Content on Adolescents

According to a September 2004 study by the RAND Corporation, "Adolescents who watch large amounts of television containing sexual content are twice as likely to begin engaging in sexual intercourse in the following year as their peers who watch little such TV." In addition, the National Institutes of Health-funded study found that these children's sexual behavior was akin to those adolescents who were 9 to 17 months older, but who watched only average amounts of TV with sexual content.

"Television habits predicted whether adolescents went to 'second or third base,' as well as whether they had sex for the first time," said Rebecca Collins, a RAND psychologist who led the study. "The 12-year-olds who watched a lot of television with sexual content behaved like the 14- or 15-years-olds who watched the least amount of sexual television. The advancement in sexual behavior we saw among kids who watched a lot of sexual television was striking."

This alarming trend occurs within the context of ever-increasing amounts of implicit and over sexual content on television. As reported by the Parents Television Council, "In a sample of programming from the 2001-2002 TV season, sexual content appeared in 64% of all TV programs. Those programs with sexually related material had an average of 4.4 scenes per hour. Talk of sex is more frequent (61%) vs. overt portrayals (32%). One out of every 7 programs includes a portrayal of sexual intercourse." According to the RAND study, talk of sex had just as much of an effect on adolescent sexual behavior as overt behaviors.

Sexual behavior among U.S. teens is on the rise. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 46% of all high school students have had sexual intercourse. The National Institutes of Health has found that, each year, one of every four sexual active teens contracts a sexually transmitted disease. Teen pregnancy in the U.S. is also the highest among industrialized nations.

Now, more than ever, parents need to be concerned about what their children are watching on television. The first step parents need to take is to monitor the content of the shows their adolescents watch. According to RAND researcher Collins, "The impact of television viewing is so large that even a moderate shift in the sexual content of adolescent TV watching could have a substantial effect on their sexual behavior."

Other important steps you can take to curb or mitigate your children's exposure to sexual content on television include:

  • Watch TV with your children and discuss your beliefs about sex and about the sexual behaviors portrayed on TV.
  • Develop TV-watching guidelines for your children and enforce them.
  • Limit the amount of time your children watch TV. Instead, use family movie reviews to rent movies with appropriate content.
  • Encourage and reward your children for reading instead of watching TV.
  • Encourage your children to find and develop non-television related hobbies and interests.

By taking these simple steps, you can help to ensure that your adolescents' attitudes and beliefs about sex more closely mirror your own, and that their sexual initiation is delayed.

Brent Sitton is the founder of DiscoveryJourney.com. DiscoveryJourney has a variety of tools available to give parents help to avoid the effects of media sexual content, such as a child book list and movie list with media free of sexual content. Discovery Journey's Children's Book Review and Family Movie Review include a list of positive character traits and negative behaviors, along with a Character Score that helps parents select appropriate child entertainment.

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