The Media’s Influence

In recognition of the media’s impact on the sexual attitudes and behaviors of young people, last summer the medical journal Pediatrics, in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and the University of Texas at Houston, published a supplemental review and summary of the scientific literature on this topic. Though startling and disturbing, the findings do suggest how parents can intervene.

For example, one disturbing finding is that the typical American youngster is exposed to various forms of mass media for as much as one-third of every day—without parental supervision. Take television. The average teenager watches television for more than three hours per day. Two-thirds of teens and tweens have TVs in their bedrooms, just as often with cable that provides easy access to graphic sexual talk and scenes. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that among the shows most watched by teens, 83% had sexual content and 20% specifically portrayed intercourse. In fact, each hour of programming offered 6.7 scenes containing sexual topics.

The problem with all this exposure is that it shapes kids’ sexual attitudes and behavior, causing them to grow up faster. According to this research, watching TV with sexual content causes young people to behave nine to 17 months older than their chronological age. Twelve-year-olds who watched the greatest amounts of TV behaved sexually like the 14- and 15-year-olds who watched the least. That is because when kids are continuously exposed to sexual content, they come to believe that that these behaviors are normal, widespread, and accepted. Their attitudes shape their behavior.

It is not just television that affects young teens. Consider movies, videos, the Internet, and songs, magazines, video games, and computer programs. Music videos are perhaps the most notoriously suggestive and erotic. Although all these forms of media provide young people with both implicit and explicit sexual messages and sometimes graphic activities, their impact has yet to be studied.

It seems clear from these studies—and from the growing concerns of parents—that young teens need more guidance. Here are some specific suggestions. One, find out exactly how much—and what kind—of television shows your daughters are watching. The same is true for movies and video and computer games. Two, exercise your parental authority to set limits that are age-appropriate. Don’t think that “everyone else is seeing it” or hope that content will “go over his head.” Three, consider watching your daughter’s favorite shows with her, both to see what she is seeing and to use as a springboard for discussion. Ask for her opinions about characters’ attitudes and actions. This sort of discussion often prompts young people to discover their own. Four, above all use these middle school years to convey your family’s values about sexual issues.

Give some thought to communicating most effectively about these tough subjects. Another study found that even when parents had strong beliefs about sex, a large proportion of their teens did not pick up on these messages. So be crystal-clear and specific about your expectations—for example, the conditions under which you think your daughter should and should not become sexually active. Teach her to respect herself and her body. In addition to the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (which are most prevalent among teenagers), sexual involvement in early adolescence can have far-reaching effects on self-esteem and adjustment. As but one example, girls who become sexually active early on usually regret that decision—and often become depressed.
Observing potentially worrisome behaviors gives you an opportunity to take a closer look at what your young teen is exposed to sexually and how she is processing that information. Being proactive now—getting information, talking about values, rethinking guidelines about television, movies, the Internet, and games—can make all the difference in your daughter’s developing healthy sexual attitudes and practices. And remember, all the research confirms that despite the media’s powerful impact, parents are still the number one influence on growing teens.

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