Special Feature: Exploring the Relationship Between Media and Adolescent Health
Adolescents live in a media-rich environment, with unprecedented exposure to content—including television, movies, music, games, advertising, and Internet websites—that fits in a pocket. Through a series of innovative studies, RAND Health is helping parents, practitioners, and policymakers better understand the positive and negative effects of traditional media on adolescent health and well-being and the evolving role that new media play in adolescents’ daily lives.
Television—Bad Example or Good Role Model?
The average American teenager watches three hours of television a day. Typical teen fare contains heavy doses of sexual content, from touching, kissing, jokes, and innuendo to conversations about sexual activity and portrayals of intercourse. RAND studies found that watching sex on television influences teens’ sexual behavior.
Teens who watch a lot of television with sexual content are more likely to have sexual intercourse in the following year. Shows in which characters just talk about sex affect teens just as much as shows that actually depict sexual activity. Among teens having sex, the proportion likely to become pregnant or be responsible for a pregnancy in their teen years is higher for those frequently exposed to sexual content on TV. In contrast, shows with content about contraception and pregnancy can demonstrate the risks and consequences of sex—and can also foster beneficial dialogue between teens and parents.
Adverse Effects of Degrading Sexual Lyrics
Music also holds powerful sway over adolescents. Teens who most often listened to artists whose lyrics include portrayals of sex that are degrading to men and women were more likely to have sex at a young age. Lyrics including content that was sexual but not degrading weren’t associated with earlier sex.
The Power of Advertising
RAND surveys of youth found that, as early as 4th grade, children were well versed in alcohol brands and ads. TV advertising of alcohol reaches large numbers of youth, and presages their behavior: For example, viewing of TV alcohol ads by 6th graders was linked to a higher risk of drinking by grade 7. The combined influence of multiple forms of marketing (e.g., in-store promotions, owning promotional items) also predicted an increased risk of subsequent drinking.￼
What About New Media?
New media (e.g., the Internet and social media such as Facebook and Twitter) embody the potential for on-demand access to content any time, anywhere, on any digital device, as well as interactive user feedback, creative participation, and community formation around the media content. Currently, new media remain less pervasive than traditional forms, especially television and music, in part because digital platforms have extended the reach of traditional media. But the balance is shifting, and studies to date indicate that new media are already influencing teens’ sexual attitudes and behavior, both positively and negatively. RAND Health experts are actively pursuing a research agenda in this rapidly evolving media landscape, identifying potential links between media content and adolescent health behavior, exploring ways to harness new media’s power to promote health, and developing programs to give parents the skills they need to effectively channel their children’s media use.