Media Influences on Teen Sexual Behavior

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American teenagers are exposed to substantial amounts of sexual content on television. Though it is widely believed that this exposure affects teens, there has been surprisingly little scientific investigation of this issue. To address this knowledge gap, RAND conducted a multi-year year study that broke new scientific ground as the first to examine whether adolescents' viewing of sexual content on television predicts their subsequent behavior and health outcomes. The study found that:

  • Teens who watch a lot of television with sexual content are more likely to initiate sexual intercourse in the following year (see figure).
  • Frequent exposure to TV sexual content was associated with a significantly greater likelihood of teen pregnancy in the three years following exposure.
  • Portraying the risks of sex in television shows appears to help educate teens about the potential consequences of sexual behavior.
  • A related study of the effects of music found that heavy exposure to sexually degrading lyrics predicts accelerated initiation of sexual intercourse and other sexual activities.

The key finding linking television sexual content and subsequent sexual behavior has now been replicated twice by researchers at other institutions. There has been broad media coverage of the RAND studies, stimulating editorials and interest from the general public. The new administration has expressed an interest in reform in this area, largely through the mechanism of enhanced technology-based parental controls of television.

Across All Age Groups, Teens Who Saw the Most Sex on Television Were Twice as Likely to Initiate Intercourse Within the Next Year as Were Those Who Saw the Least

Across All Age Groups, Teens Who Saw the Most Sex on Television Were Twice as Likely to Initiate Intercourse Within the Next Year as Were Those Who Saw the Least

SOURCE: Pediatrics Vol. 114, No. 3, September 2004 (as presented in RAND Research Brief 9068 [2004], "Does Watching Sex on Television Influence Teens' Sexual Activity?")

Note: this research was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development.

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