Adolescents Who Watch a Lot of TV with Sexual Content Have Sex Sooner

For Release

September 7, 2004

Adolescents who watch large amounts of television containing sexual content are twice as likely to begin engaging in sexual intercourse in the following year as their peers who watch little such TV, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

In addition, the study found that youths who watch large amounts of TV with sexual content are more likely to initiate sexual activities other than intercourse, such as “making out” and oral sex. These adolescents behaved sexually like youths who were 9 to 17 months older, but watched only average amounts of TV with sexual content, according to the study published in the September electronic edition of the journal Pediatrics.

“This is the strongest evidence yet that the sexual content of television programs encourages adolescents to initiate sexual intercourse and other sexual activities,” said Rebecca Collins, a RAND psychologist who headed the study. “The impact of television viewing is so large that even a moderate shift in the sexual content of adolescent TV watching could have a substantial effect on their sexual behavior.”

“Television habits predicted whether adolescents went to ‘second or third base,’ as well as whether they had sex for the first time,” Collins said. “The 12-year-olds who watched a lot of television with sexual content behaved like the 14- or 15-years-olds who watched the least amount of sexual television. The advancement in sexual behavior we saw among kids who watched a lot of sexual television was striking.”

Researchers from RAND Health found that television shows that included only talk about sex had just as much impact on adolescent behavior as shows that depicted sexual behavior.

“We found little difference whether a TV show presents people talking about whether they have sex or portrays them having sex,” Collins said. “Both affect adolescents’ perceptions of what is normal sexual behavior and propels their own sexual behavior.”

On a positive note, the study found that one group—African American youth—that watched more depictions of sexual risks or safety measures was less likely to begin engaging in sexual intercourse in the subsequent year.

Studies show that about two-thirds of television entertainment programs contain sexual content, ranging from jokes and innuendo to intercourse and other behaviors. Two earlier studies have suggested a link between adolescents’ viewing of television and their sexual behavior, but those earlier efforts all had significant shortcomings, according to researchers.

With funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, RAND researchers surveyed 1,792 adolescents aged 12 to 17 from across the nation, asking them about their television viewing habits and sexual behavior. The participants were followed up with a similar survey a year later.

Information about television habits was combined with the results of a scientific analysis of television sexual content to determine the frequency and type of sexual content the adolescents were exposed to during their TV viewing.

Researchers found that adolescents who watched the most television with sexual content were twice as likely to initiate sexual intercourse over the next year as adolescents who watched the least amount of TV with sexual content.

The RAND study identified other factors that increased the likelihood that adolescents would initiate sexual intercourse, including: being older, having older friends, getting lower grades, engaging in rule-breaking such as skipping class, and sensation-seeking.

Adolescents were less likely to initiate sexual intercourse if their parents monitored their activities, if their parents had more education, if they lived with both parents, if their parents did not approve of them having sexual relations, if they were religious, and if they were in good mental health. Adolescents with these characteristics also were less likely to see sex on television, but television viewing was related to sexual behavior even after these differences were taken into account.

The RAND researchers recommend that parents watch television with their children and talk about any sexual content that appears—even the jokes.

“Talking about television can give parents a chance to express their own views about sex, and viewing shows with their kids will also help parents identify any programs they want to designate as off-limits,” Collins said.

Studies show many adolescents become sexually active during their teen-age years, with 46 percent of U.S. high school students reporting they have had sexual intercourse. But most sexually active teens also say they wish they had waited longer to have sex, suggesting that sex is occurring before young people are prepared for its consequences, according to researchers.

Other authors of the study are RAND researchers Marc N. Elliott, Sandra H. Berry, David E. Kanouse, Sarah B. Hunter and Angela Miu, along with Dale Kunkel of the University of Arizona.

RAND Health is the nation’s largest independent health policy research organization, with a broad research portfolio that focuses on medical quality, health care costs and delivery of health care, among other topics.

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