The insatiably curious Opie Taylor might ask, “Hey, Paw, what’s this I see about sex on TV?” if he saw the new report linking teen pregnancy to watching sex on television.
“I mean, Paw, what’s sex, and how do you have it on a TV?”
A blushing Sheriff Andy Taylor might reply, “Well, Opie, things aren’t as clear these days as they were back in Mayberry, when everything was black and white, including us.”
Land sakes, Aunt Bea, this theory has some black-and-white evidence for the first time: Teenage exposure to sexual content on TV increases the likelihood of pregnancy before the age of 20, according to the study, published Monday in “Pediatrics,” the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Teens who were exposed to high levels of television sexual content . . . were twice as likely to experience a pregnancy in the subsequent three years, compared with those with lower levels of exposure,” the study concluded.
In addition, the study suggested: “Limiting adolescent exposure to the sexual content on television and balancing portrayals of sex in the media with information about possible negative consequences might reduce the risk of teen pregnancy.”
It also recommended that parents who allow their children to view such programs should make them a teaching moment and discuss the portrayals of sex.
Anita Chandra, lead researcher on the project, told The Washington Post, "Sexual content on television has doubled in the last few years, especially during the period of our research.”
Chandra, a researcher at the nonpartisan Rand Corp., and her colleagues did telephone surveys with more than 2,000 adolescents from 2001 to 2004 to gather information about several behavioral and demographic factors, including TV viewing. They analyzed the sexual content of 23 shows during the 2000-2001 TV season to calculate how often characters kissed, touched, had sex, and discussed sexual activity.
Almost 720 of the youths reported being sexually active during the study period, and the researchers found that the likelihood of getting pregnant or getting someone else pregnant increased with the amount of sexual content they watched. 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 study found.
Fifty-eight girls reported getting pregnant, and 33 boys acknowledged responsibility for getting a girl pregnant during the study period.
The researchers factored in variables such as whether the teenagers had only one parent in the home, wanted to have a baby, or engaged in other risky behaviors.
Programs monitored included "Sex and the City," "Friends," and "That '70s Show," said Chandra, who declined to identify the others but said they included dramas, comedies, reality shows, and animated programs on broadcast and cable networks.
The rapid evolution of media has increased teens’ access to such content.
They can see such programs not only on TV but also on computers and, increasingly on cell phones, Dr. Donald Shifrin told Time.com.
"It's not just appointment television — now, it's anytime television,” said Shifrin, former chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Communications. "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.'
The academy created its Media Matters campaign more than a decade ago to promote awareness of the impact of TV and movies and spur parents to monitor and discuss what their children watch.
Previous studies have linked watching TV shows with sexual content and becoming sexually active earlier, and between sexually explicit music videos and an increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases. Others also have demonstrated a cause-effect relationship between TV violence and aggressiveness in children.
But this was the first project that has tied steamy TV viewing and teen pregnancy, the researchers and others say.
The study also added steam to the debate over birth control.
"We have a highly sexualized culture that glamorizes sex," Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association told The Post. "We really need to encourage schools to make abstinence-centered programs a priority."
Others disputed the idea, with James Wagoner of Advocates for Youth telling The Post: “This finding underscores the importance of evidence-based sex education that helps young people delay sex and use prevention when they become sexually active. The absolutely last thing we should do in response is bury our heads in the sand and promote failed abstinence-only programs."
The researchers also suggested that TV programmers shoulder more responsibility, including more realistic depictions of the consequences and risks of sexual activity, such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Some experts expressed reservations about giving the study’s findings too much weight.
For example, The Post quoted Laura Lindberg of the Guttmacher Institute as saying, "It may be the kids who have an interest in sex watch shows with sexual content. I'm concerned this makes it seem like if we just shut off the TV, we'd dramatically reduce the teen pregnancy rate."
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