Sex on TV has come a long way in the past few years. Anyone who saw the first episode of 90210 a pair of students engage in oral sex in the first episode of the new sequel to Beverly Hills 90210 can attest to that. (See the 100 best albums, movies, TV shows and novels of all time.)
The question that has been debated by parents, psychologists and media critics for years is whether such racy content has an adverse effect on young viewers. Now researchers at the Rand Corp. say they have documented for the first time how such exposure can influence teen pregnancy rates. They found that teens exposed to the most sexual content on TV are twice as likely as teens watching less of this material to become pregnant before they reach age 20.
"The relationship between exposure of this kind of content on TV and the risk of later pregnancy is fairly strong," says Anita Chandra, a behavioral scientist and the study's author. "Even if it were diminished by other contributing factors, the association still holds." Such consistent exposure may explain in part why the U.S. teen pregnancy rate is double that of other industrialized nations. Chandra and her team interviewed 1,461 teens ages 12 to 17 by phone, speaking to them three times between 2001 and '04. While previous studies exploring the effect of TV content on teen pregnancy relied on onetime snapshots of adolescents' behavior, Chandra believes the continuity of her study reinforces the strength of the relationship she found between pregnancy and exposure to sexual content on television.
Previous research has revealed two major ways that this glamorized perception of sex contributes to teen pregnancy: by encouraging teens to become sexually active early in their adolescence and by promoting inconsistent use of contraceptives. And, notes Dr. Donald Shifrin, former chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on communications, add to this the fact that children are accessing television not just via the small screen at home but on the computer and increasingly on cell phones, and the opportunities for exposure to sexual content just explode. "It's not just 'appointment' television, now it's anytime television," says Shifrin. "And this study was begun seven years ago, so if it were done today, [the authors] would probably find more evidence of sex on screens that affects youngsters' behaviors."
Yet it's neither likely nor realistic to expect the television and movie industries to curb the amount of sexual content in their products. That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics created the Media Matters campaign more than a decade ago to promote awareness within the industry of how influential its TV shows and movies are to youngsters and to alert parents to the critical role they play in monitoring and mediating what their children watch. Having ammunition in the form of a study-based association such as Chandra documented just gives the message more impact.