It's reasonable to wonder if teens who see lots of sexually suggestive TV are more likely to initiate intercourse or engage in other sexual activities earlier than their peers who don't tune in to such programs.
Researchers are now reporting, for the first time, that teens who see lots of lewd TV are actually twice as likely to become (or get someone) pregnant before age 20 than those who view very little sexually explicit content on the tube.
Looking at a national phone survey and follow-ups of more than 2,000 12- to 17-year-olds over a 3-year period, researchers were able to pinpoint that the teens who'd viewed "high levels of televised sexual content" were far more likely to become pregnant.
The survey focused on all kinds of popular teen programs, from sitcoms to reality shows, and on everything from passionate kissing to discussions about sexual desires, from implied intercourse to actual depictions of sex.
What This Means to You
Although the results of this study don't prove cause and effect, putting limits on teens' exposure to sex in the media might help to reduce the risk of teen pregnancy. But it's also helpful, the study's authors say, to give kids information about the potential downsides of sexual activity when they do view sexual scenarios on TV.
Here's some of the facts that many popular programs don't bring up to their teen viewers:
- Nearly 1 million teenage girls in the United States have babies every year. That's an astonishing 20% of the young girls who are sexually active and more than any other industrialized nation in the world. In 2006, the number of births to teen moms (ages 15 to 19) rose for the first time in nearly 15 years. And having a baby can change everything for a teen — as the study points out, "Young mothers are more likely than others to drop out of school, to require public assistance, and to live in poverty."
- A staggering 1 in 4 (or an estimated 3.2 million) teenage girls in the United States has a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
- You can't get pregnant if you have oral sex, but you can get an STD like gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, warts, herpes, or HIV.
- Some STDs (like genital warts and herpes) also can spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact without actual vaginal or anal penetration.
- Each year about 6.2 million people contract the human papillomavirus (HPV). The leading cause of cervical cancer and genital warts, HPV affects more than half of sexually active people at some point in their lives.
- An estimated 42 million people worldwide are living with AIDS or HIV (human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS). And more than 3 million die from AIDS-related illnesses every year.
- A latex condom is an absolute must for anyone who decides to have vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Still, only complete and consistent abstinence can totally prevent pregnancy and protect against all STDs.
To help open your teens' eyes to what having sex really means, and to help keep TV viewing in your household in the most positive context possible:
- Preview programs before your kids watch them. Look for reruns of shows or check out the programs' promotions online to find out if your kids should be viewing them.
- Watch programs with your kids — at least the first few minutes to assess the tone and appropriateness, then check in throughout the show. Offer perspective and guidance about what they're seeing and start a dialogue about the consequences (like pregnancy and STDs) that could come with being sexually active. Give the facts, but also give them a sense of where you stand, without preaching. Explain what your values are and why.
- Lay down some ground rules about what kinds of programs you approve of and which ones you don't.
- Try a weekday ban (especially since some of the racier shows air on weeknights). Record shows or save TV and videos for weekends so you'll have more family time for meals, games, physical activity, reading, and just spending quality time together.
- Keep TVs out of kids' bedrooms. Having a TV in their rooms can affect kids academically, socially, and physically.
- Turn off the TV during meals.
- Set a good example — limit your own screen time.
Granted, as kids get older and crave more and more independence, it becomes much harder to have a say in what they do or don't see (on TV and online, where they can also view a lot of their favorite shows as well as plenty of other unsavory content). But, as a parent, you still retain the right to have some control over (and offer insights about) what your kids are viewing — even if "everyone else is watching it."
Still, try to have faith in your kids' abilities to make good decisions and be there to help them think through the tough ones. Rather than telling teens what they should do, offer suggestions and help them consider the outcomes and consequences — what will happen, how they might feel, how others might feel or react, and how it could change their lives now and in the future.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: November 2008
Source: "Does Watching Sex on Television Predict Teen Pregnancy? Findings from a National Longitudinal Survey of Youth," Pediatrics, November 2008.