Sex in the Media: A New Study Finds Troubling Links to Teens

I allow my eight-year-old son to play a virtual world online game because it satisfies his sense of adventure (medieval style!) and it requires him to problem solve -- to figure out how to turn wheat into bread, say, or to determine what sorts of metals are required to make a hatchet. And yet the game bothers me. The iconography is very sexualized: the women who lure players into the games often sport lusty cleavage; many avatars are dressed like wenches.

This is not unusual, says the American Association of Pediatrics in a policy statement issued this week, and it should, indeed, worry parents. "New evidence points to the media adolescents use frequently (television, music, movies, magazines, and the Internet) as important factors in the initiation of sexual intercourse," notes the statement. "There is a major disconnect between what mainstream media portray -- casual sex and sexuality with no consequences -- and what children and teenagers need."

What they need, says the report, is not abstinence-only education -- the kids are ignoring that with the help of a surfeit of sexualized images and scenarios easily available online and off. A 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 46% of high school seniors have had sex, and about one in six have had sex with four or more partners. Worse, of the sexually active students, 39% said they did not use a condom during their last sexual encounter. It follows, then, that those sexually active seniors need education about the consequences of teen sex. And they need protection.

There are other eye-opening numbers. The United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the Western world. More concerning is the risky, and often coerced, behavior of young teens. A quarter of teenagers have had a sexually transmitted infection; one in ten girls who have had teen sex say that the first time was against their will. And despite representing just 25% of the sexually active population in the United States, 15- to 24-year-olds contract nearly half of all new STIs every year.

Don't expect television and gaming producers to change their products any time soon. Some estimates have the video game industry topping $20 billion in 2010. It would take some serious regulatory muscle to slow that economic engine down.

Reality TV is Not Helping

But the truth is that sexualized online gaming is only a small part of the problem. Most troubling for pediatricians (if the order of problems in the report is any indication) is reality TV, with shows like The Bachelor and Temptation Island setting up unrealistic scenarios in which partnering has no health consequences, or any consequences at all, really. A study of college students cited by the AAP indicated that viewing reality television shows "correlated with beliefs in a double standard -- that men are sex driven and men and women are sexual adversaries."

If reality TV were watched mostly by those who already were sexually active, this might have less of an effect on teenagers, who could put the scenarios in a context based on their own experiences. That's not the case, however; less sexually experienced college students watch more reality television than their more experienced counterparts, "which suggests the importance of such programs for sexual socialization."

To a parent in her 30s or 40s, these shows seem transparent and silly. A bunch of girls live in a nice house with one man, and the ones that are most willing to have sex (or, at the very least, make out in salacious hot tub scenes) are the most likely to get the guy. But watching this sexual content (and even the discussion of sex on the shows, which can have an impact equal to the depiction of sex) "hastens the initiation of teen sex," according to the recent study.

A Connection to Teen Pregnancy is Made

No matter how one feels about teenage sexual activity, the consequences appear to be real and unfortunate. According to another study, even after controlling for other risk factors like family stability and income levels, rates of teen pregnancy increase if there is greater exposure to sex on TV. Movies such as Juno (depicting a teen who becomes pregnant and has to deal with the consequences) and old-fashioned after-school specials are the exception to the rule; most television aimed at teens and young adults doesn't connect STIs and pregnancy to sexual activity.

The media's messages are impossible to avoid -- it is embedded in everything from reality TV to movies (virtually every R-rated movie aimed at teens has included at least one nude scene and, often, several sex scenes), to advertisements (over $300 million is spent each year on ads for erectile dysfunction drugs), to online and offline games and Facebook. While I was a little shocked to recently find the 15-year-old little sister of a friend engaging in sexual banter with a male friend on her Facebook stream, the AAP says this isn't shocking. "The media may act as a 'superpeer' in convincing adolescents that sexual activity is normative behavior for young teenagers," their policy statement asserts.

Taking TV Out of Bedrooms

The AAP makes a number of recommendations for parents and pediatricians, beginning with limiting childrens' exposure to inappropriate media (especially PG-13 and R-rated movies), and removing TV and internet access from childrens' bedrooms (a recommendation, incidentally, that's also made in the interest of reducing obesity, which has a link to unfettered access to TV). Sexual education that includes information about contraceptives and avoiding disease is key; the AAP advises against abstinence-only education, calling it "ineffective."

The advertising industry was noted by the recent study as being especially problematic on this front; the AAP calls for more contraceptive advertisement and less erectile dysfunction marketing, with the suggestion that ED drug ads be limited to airing after 10 PM. The AAP also says that pediatricians and parents "should encourage the entertainment industry to produce more programming that contains responsible sexual content and that focuses on the interpersonal relationship in which sexual activity takes place."

No End to Reality TV?

Despite the obvious problems with shows like Bachelor and Joe Millionaire and Momma's Boys, the conveyor belt of reality dating shows rattles on. In a recent interview, Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss admitted that contestants typically do have sex during the show, and a lot of it (participants are tested for STIs before being sequestered together). Fourth-season star Bob Guiney, said Fleiss, had the "highest batting average" with "five-and-a-half" couplings (whatever that means).

It's this enthusiasm that suggests that the Bachelor and shows of its ilk, despite their damaging impact on teenagers, aren't going anywhere. As creator Fleiss told Reality TV World, "We weren't sure going into the series whether or not women would really care and whether or not they would really compete for the love of one guy... [but] once we saw girls hyperventilating and what not, we knew it was working." Fleiss added that it was best if viewers "hated" the contestants.

Whether or not the AAP will be successful in its campaign to reduce the sexualization of media available to children remains uncertain. Given the financial interests involved, the answer to that question could very likely be "no." Sex sells, it always has, and it sells particularly well to those who don't know any better: your kids.

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Darryl Diaz

I completely agree with your argument about the media having a lot of control over the thoughts and actions a young teen makes through what they expose. The media is damaging the minds of adolescents through the imagery of sex. Sex on TV influences kids who are too young to have sex and that is not the type of message that should be sent out to our future generation. Putting a simple rated R on a movie does not signify that young teens will not see this film and that they won’t interpret wrong ideas about having sex. It is an adult step of intimacy not something for the minds of a young teen. Moreover, in watching movies and such I realize that the entertainment is just aimed towards sex and there’s no actual scenes of men putting on condoms. Basically, you see the roaring pleasure of sex and are blinded by the precautions and aftermath of sex. This essence of sex is not only portrayed through television but through movies, books, magazines, music, and the internet. Even games display false ideas about women through nudity and portraying women as prostitutes. Along with the sexual ac
I understand the need and drive to sell is the essential goal for most entertainment industries but not at the expense of ruining the values of the teens. The media is not only “running away with the cash, but with our values in relation to sex”. In other words, parents are paying for their children’s demise. The fact that “the United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the Western World”, should reverse the trend of sexual activity on TV, instead the media continues to communicate a negative influence on teens. It is evident that if something is not done then it’s just the greedy getting what they want while the rest suffer the consequences of their actions. But indeed as noted in your article, “Sex in the Media: a New Study Finds Troubling Links to Teens”, a push for removing Television from young teens is strong step to take towards protecting teens from inappropriate sexual activity. Especially, extermination of reality TV shows for teens that aren’t sexually active. For example: parents might see the show in a different way, perhaps foolish, being more experienced with sex. On the contrary teens will see it as an impulse and excuse to continue with their curiosity towards sex. Since teens typically pass on their favorite television shows with their peers, it transformers into this circle of teens having sex. It seems rather ignorant on both parts to be trapped into such a destructive path. Furthermore, to avert such setback sex education on contraceptive use is necessary to mold the minds of our generation to be careful and safe when and if having sex. Ultimately, there is a vast amount of sexual content in the entertainment industry and the media should seek innovation on their own because sooner or later the voice of the future generation will reach out to a theatre near you.

Darryl Diaz

May 04 2012 at 11:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

How dumb are people in the entertainment business? Anybody with half a brain could figure this out but apparently our films and games and videos are created by over-aged juveniles still excited over their hormones. The rest of us who would like something ELSE to watch and who don't consider sex a spectator sport don't buy into it. They are increasingly seeking the young male viewer/user and helping him stay as young and dumb as they are. I guess maybe they don't excite any other interested parties.

September 05 2010 at 9:00 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

To mosqueobama: It ain't 'liberals' or 'Obama' that is the problem. The problem is that OWNERS of the media will air whatever increases their 'bottom line'. It's called capitalism. Corporations are ruled by the profit motive. Corporations are NOT people. They exist for one reason only--to turn a profit. Your beef is with our economic system....NOT the 'liberal' bogeymen that Beck, Limbaugh and O'Reilly invoke to explain what's wrong with America.

September 05 2010 at 12:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply