Teenagers, Sex, Religion, and Media

Posted on November 8, 2008 at 11:00 am

The Washington Post reports on the first study to link teen pregnancies to sexual content on television. The study is being published today in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The authors found a “strong association” between teen pregnancy and watching sexual activity in television programs.
Teenagers who watch a lot of television featuring flirting, necking, discussion of sex and sex scenes are much more likely than their peers to get pregnant or get a partner pregnant, according to the first study to directly link steamy programming to teen pregnancy.
The study, which tracked more than 700 12-to-17-year-olds for three years, found that those who viewed the most sexual content on TV were about twice as likely to be involved in a pregnancy as those who saw the least….
Studies have found a link between watching television shows with sexual content and becoming sexually active earlier, and between sexually explicit music videos and an increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases. And many studies have shown that TV violence seems to make children more aggressive. But the new research is the first to show an association between TV watching and pregnancy among teens.
The problem with these studies is always cause and effect. Do teenagers who are already sexually active or considering becoming sexually active tend to watch more of these programs or do these programs promote unprotected sexual activity?
It is stupid to suggest that media does not affect behavior, especially of teenagers who are just beginning to look beyond the home and school for guidance on behavior. There is a billion-dollar industry devoted to the impact of media on behavior — it is called advertising. Television programming may not be selling clothes or toothpaste, but it is always selling a notion of what is — and is not — cool. And that does affect the choices made by viewers.

Among the 718 youths who reported being sexually active during the study, the likelihood of getting pregnant or getting someone else pregnant increased steadily with the amount of sexual content they watched on TV, the researchers found. About 25 percent of those who watched the most were involved in a pregnancy, compared with about 12 percent of those who watched the least. The researchers took into account other factors such as having only one parent, wanting to have a baby and engaging in other risky behaviors….
The researchers recommended that parents spend more time monitoring what their children watch and discussing what they see, including pointing out the possible negative consequences of early sexual activity. Programmers should also include more-realistic portrayals of the risks of sex, such as sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, the researchers said. Unfortunately, that continues to be relatively rare compared to the portrayals of the positive aspects,” Chandra said.
And in the New Yorker, Margaret Talbot has a fascinating article about teen pregnancy rates in red state and blue state communities.
Social liberals in the country’s “blue states” tend to support sex education and are not particularly troubled by the idea that many teen-agers have sex before marriage, but would regard a teen-age daughter’s pregnancy as devastating news. And the social conservatives in “red states” generally advocate abstinence-only education and denounce sex before marriage, but are relatively unruffled if a teen-ager becomes pregnant, as long as she doesn’t choose to have an abortion.
Citing a study that shows “that religion is a good indicator of attitudes toward sex, but a poor one of sexual behavior,” Talbot reports that although evangelical white teens are more likely to think sex outside of marriage is wrong and less likely to think sex is pleasurable, they are more likely to have sex earlier and more likely to have sex without contraception than any other group of teenagers except for black Protestants.
The study also found
only half of sexually active teen-agers who say that they seek guidance from God or the Scriptures when making a tough decision report using contraception every time. By contrast, sixty-nine per cent of sexually active youth who say that they most often follow the counsel of a parent or another trusted adult consistently use protection.
One of the study’s most provocative findings concerned pledges of abstinence, creating
a peculiar dilemma: in some schools, if too many teens pledge, the effort basically collapses. Pledgers apparently gather strength from the sense that they are an embattled minority; once their numbers exceed thirty per cent, and proclaimed chastity becomes the norm, that special identity is lost.
Or, it may be that social pressure may encourage some teens to make a public pledge that does not reflect their actual beliefs and intentions.
One of the study’s most significant finding is that religious belief is less important than practice and words are less important than good examples.
Even more important than religious conviction…is how “embedded” a teen-ager is in a network of friends, family, and institutions that reinforce his or her goal of delaying sex, and that offer a plausible alternative to America’s sexed-up consumer culture. A church, of course, isn’t the only way to provide a cohesive sense of community. Close-knit families make a difference. Teen-agers who live with both biological parents are more likely to be virgins than those who do not. And adolescents who say that their families understand them, pay attention to their concerns, and have fun with them are more likely to delay intercourse, regardless of religiosity.
It should not take a study to remind us that the examples set by concerned, involved, and accessible parents are much more important in guiding teenagers than pledges, sex education curricula, or even “Gossip Girls.”

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Commentary Teenagers Understanding Media and Pop Culture
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