Sexual Images on TV Lead to Increased Teen Sex/Pregnancies

Well, a study has been done that proves what common sense dictates. There are numerous news outlets reporting on the study, but here are some excerpts from the Washington Post on the study.


The study, which tracked more than 700 12-to-17-year-olds for three years, found that those who viewed the most sexual content on TV were about twice as likely to be involved in a pregnancy as those who saw the least.

“Sexual content on television has doubled in the last few years, especially during the period of our research,” said Chandra, a researcher at the nonpartisan Rand Corp.

Studies have found a link between watching television shows with sexual content and becoming sexually active earlier, and between sexually explicit music videos and an increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases. And many studies have shown that TV violence seems to make children more aggressive. But the new research is the first to show an association between TV watching and pregnancy among teens.

Chandra and her colleagues surveyed more than 2,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 three times by telephone from 2001 to 2004 to gather information about a variety of behavioral and demographic factors, including television viewing habits. Based on a detailed analysis of the sexual content of 23 shows in the 2000-2001 TV season, the researchers calculated how often the teens saw characters kissing, touching, having sex, and discussing past or future sexual activity.

Among the 718 youths who reported being sexually active during the study, the likelihood of getting pregnant or getting someone else pregnant increased steadily with the amount of sexual content they watched on TV, the researchers found. About 25 percent of those who watched the most were involved in a pregnancy, compared with about 12 percent of those who watched the least. The researchers took into account other factors such as having only one parent, wanting to have a baby and engaging in other risky behaviors.

Fifty-eight girls reported getting pregnant and 33 boys reported being responsible for getting a girl pregnant during the study period. The increased risk emerged regardless of whether teens watched only one or two shows that were explicit or surfed many shows that had occasional sexual content, Chandra said.

“It could be a child wasn’t watching that much TV per week but was watching shows that got a pretty high rating on sexual content, or it could be a kid who was watching a lot of hours but on average was getting just moderate amounts of sexual content from each show,” Chandra said.

Among the shows the teens watched were “Sex and the City,” “Friends” and “That ’70s Show.” Chandra would not identify the others but stressed that they included dramas, comedies, reality shows and even animated programs on broadcast and cable networks.

“We don’t want to single out any individual programs,” Chandra said.

The researchers recommended that parents spend more time monitoring what their children watch and discussing what they see, including pointing out the possible negative consequences of early sexual activity. Programmers should also include more-realistic portrayals of the risks of sex, such as sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, the researchers said.

“Unfortunately, that continues to be relatively rare compared to the portrayals of the positive aspects,” Chandra said.

Critics of television programming and experts on teen pregnancy said the research provided powerful new evidence about the role of TV in youth behavior.

Kelleen Kaye of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy praised the study but stressed that the causes of teen pregnancy are complex.

“We need to be cautious about overreaching in our expectations about the role the media can play in our effort to prevent teen pregnancy,” she said. “We don’t want to assume this is the whole story.”

Several experts questioned whether the study had established a causal relationship.

“It may be the kids who have an interest in sex watch shows with sexual content,” said Laura Lindberg of the Guttmacher Institute. “I’m concerned this makes it seem like if we just shut off the TV we’d dramatically reduce the teen pregnancy rate.”

Chandra acknowledged that other factors might play a role but said the findings are compelling because the researchers were able to track the teens over time and found such a striking relationship.

“The magnitude of the association we did see was very strong,” she said.


From the numerous psychology classes that I took during my undergraduate work I had the statement drilled into me that “correlation does not necessarily equal causation.” I always try to read studies like this through that lens. However, I think this study is probably accurate for a number of reasons:

1. There have been other studies that attest to the influence of the media and popular culture on teens. What would be really interesting is if they could also have studied the number of sexual images that teens take in from the internet through social networking sites and YouTube videos. This study simply adds to the increasing mountain of evidence (backed up by common sense) that says teens are influenced by popular media.

2. Teens are going through a time in their lives when they are very interested in sex. It is easy to see how a correlation could develop between a steady intake of sexual images (most of which display sex as something recreational with no physical or emotional consequences) and the increased likelihood to go and act out what they are seeing on TV or the internet.

3. This study might see even more increases today than when it was conducted between 2001-2004. When I graduated from highschool in 2002, social networking sites were pretty much non-existent. Sites like YouTube would not have been feasible because many people still had dial-up internet connections. Today, the accessibility to sexual images is much greater than it was even four years ago when this study ended and if a strong correlation does exist between the number of sexual images viewed and increased sexual activity then it makes sense that we would see this today.

The task of being a responsible parent is becoming more and more daunting as various forms of media continue to push their way into houses. I believe that responsible parenting could greatly reduce the risks associated with this study. Parents who are active in monitoring their children’s media intake by keeping TV and computers out of kids rooms and in common areas will have already won half the battle. The other half of the battle involves teaching your kids strong moral and spiritual principles that will guide them in making the right decisions on their own when it comes to the types of media they will allow themselves to be exposed to.


3 thoughts on “Sexual Images on TV Lead to Increased Teen Sex/Pregnancies

  1. Another thing is that parents are too terrified to even bring up the topic of sex with their kids. Working for a school, you’d be shocked at the topics of conversation between kids. I know they learn most of it from their friends who know even less about it than they do.

    I feel very glad that my folks took the time out of their day to talk to my brother and I about it. I’m sure it was difficult or even a little embarrassing, but at least we didn’t learn about it from Cinemax or MTV. We got the facts, Jack.

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