Studies Show Teens Sexual Behavior Influenced By Media Content

How much does the media influence teens sexual behavior? New studies document the startling results.

teens kissing

Why researchers did the study?
Approximately 2/3 of television programming contains some sexual material. But studies have not been done “examining the relationships between exposure to sex on TV and adolescent sexual behaviors.” So researches answered the question in two independent studies. RAND, a research corporation, in conjunction with the University of California conducted the first study and the University of North Carolina conducted the second.

Who did the researchers study?
The researchers surveyed teenagers, ages 12 to 17, about their television viewing habits, sexual activity, and other related factors such as parent involvement, behavior, religious activity, and peer groups. The first study did follow up interviews a year later and the second two years later asking the same questions.

What are the results?
The results are not surprising to me. The researchers found a strong correlation between the exposure to sexual content on television and the progression of teen sexual activity.

“The size of the adjusted intercourse effect was such that youths in the 90th percentile of TV sex viewing had a predicted probability of intercourse initiation that was approximately double that of youths in the 10th percentile, for all ages studied. Exposure to TV that included only talk about sex was associated with the same risks as exposure to TV that depicted sexual behavior.”

Why is the study important?
The media and parents need to be aware that teens are being heavily influenced by the sexual content in television shows and movies.

Dr. Brown says, “Some, especially those who have fewer alternative sources of sexual norms, such as parents or friends, may use the media as a kind of sexual super peer that encourages them to be sexually active… Teens are defaulting to entertainment media for sexual information because they aren’t getting this information in other places. Unfortunately, the media aren’t the best sex educators. The media tend to leave out the crucial three C’s: commitment, contraception and consequences.”

Researcher George Gerber believes that as television becomes the “educator” teenagers assume that what they are seeing is correct.

As parents we need to make sure that we are monitoring the programs that our teens are watching. Even just casual references to sex in television programming can increase the likelihood of sexual behavior in adolescents. When teens do watch programming which contains sexual material, which is likely since 2/3 of programming does, then parents need to explain why the behavior is inappropriate and the likely consequences.

What other factors affect teen sexual activity?
Besides being exposed to sex on T.V., other factors that were associated with the teenager engaging in sexual activity after the first survey were: “older age, having older friends, getting low grades, engaging in deviant behavior, and sensation-seeking.”

Teenagers who had a lower probability of engaging in sexual behaviors were those who received “parental monitoring, parent education, lived with both parents, had parents who would disapprove if the adolescent had sex, were religious, and had good mental health.”

The good news is that just because teens view sexual material on television does not mean that they will engage in sexual behaviors since parents played a strong role in reducing sexual behaviors. But it does mean that parents need to be more proactive. Parents need to educate their children about, as Dr. Brown said, the “crucial three C’s: commitment, contraception and consequences.” Don’t leave sex education to the television. For more ideas about how to teach your teenager to be sexually abstinent read my blog on the topic.

Both studies were printed in Pediatrics: the RAND study in September 2004 and the University of North Carolina study in April 2006.

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About Teresa McEntire

Teresa McEntire grew up in Utah the oldest of four children. She currently lives in Kuna, Idaho, near Boise. She and her husband Gene have been married for almost ten years. She has three children Tyler, age six, Alysta, four, and Kelsey, two. She is a stay-at-home mom who loves to scrapbook, read, and of course write. Spending time with her family, including extended family, is a priority. She is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and currently works with the young women. Teresa has a degree in Elementary Education from Utah State University and taught 6th grade before her son was born. She also ran an own in-home daycare for three years. She currently writes educational materials as well as blogs for Although her formal education consisted of a variety of child development classes she has found that nothing teaches you better than the real thing. She is constantly learning as her children grow and enjoys sharing that knowledge with her readers.