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Teens With More Exposure to TV Sexual Content Twice as Likely to Have Sex as Those With Less Exposure, Survey Shows

September 7, 2004

Teenagers who are exposed to a large amount of sexual content on television programs are twice as likely to have sexual intercourse as teenagers who have less exposure to such programs, according to a RAND survey published in the September issue of Pediatrics, the AP/Seattle Times reports. Lead researcher Rebecca Collins, a RAND senior behavioral scientist, and colleagues identified 23 popular programs that regularly featured "abundant" sexual content, such as "That 70's Show," "Sex and the City" and "Friends." The researchers then surveyed 1,792 adolescents ages 12 to 17 about their television viewing habits and their sexual behavior. Teens who participated in the initial survey were asked the same questions one year later (Tanner, AP/Seattle Times, 9/7). The survey also took into account how additional social factors -- such as parents' involvement, views concerning sex and education levels, religion, depression, academic performance and age -- can influence sex among adolescents (RAND release, 9/2).

Survey Findings
The researchers found that the percentage of teenagers who reported having sex increased from 18% in the initial survey to 36% one year later. The percentage of teens who reported sexual behaviors other than intercourse increased from 62% to 75%, according to Collins, the AP/Times reports (AP/Seattle Times, 9/7). In addition, the top 10% of teenagers who watched the most sexually related content were twice as likely to engage in sexual intercourse as the bottom 10% of teens, according to Collins (Elias, USA Today, 9/7). The survey also found that programs in which sex was talked about but not portrayed had as much influence on teenage sexual behavior as programs that were more "explicit," according to Reuters/New York Post (Reuters/New York Post, 9/7). Excluding African-American adolescents, the survey found that there was no "strong" association between television content that addressed the risks related to unsafe sexual behaviors and teenagers delaying sexual intercourse, according to a RAND research brief. The researchers concluded that "more effective tests" on such content is needed to determine whether it is associated with a delay in initiating sex among youth of other ethic groups, according to the brief (RAND research brief, September 2004). A previous RAND survey, which was published in the November 2003 issue of the journal Pediatrics, found that teenagers in the United States absorb sex education messages from television programs, and watching and discussing television programs with an adult reinforces the sex education messages (Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, 11/3/03).

"This is the strongest evidence yet that the sexual content of television programs encourages adolescents to initiate sexual intercourse and other sexual activities," Collins said, adding, "Even a moderate shift in the sexual content of adolescent TV watching could have a substantial effect on their sexual behavior" (Reuters/New York Post, 9/7). According to Collins, television may "create the illusion that sex is more central to daily life than it truly is and may promote sexual initiation as a result." Collins said, "When they're watching it for three hours a day, it really does become their social world. Those characters are people they identify with and pay attention to" (AP/Seattle Times, 9/7). However, the survey's findings may "exaggerate TV's influence in causing kids to start sex," according to Joseph Allen, an adolescent psychologist at the University of Virginia, USA Today reports. "Sexually explicit TV viewing is exactly the kind of thing adolescents would do if they were interested in becoming sexually active," he said, adding, "[Collins] may be picking up on teenagers who are about to seek out sexual experiences." Some television executives also expressed skepticism. "With all due respect to RAND, we do not believe that one show can alter a person's sexual behavior," HBO spokesperson Jeff Cusson said. Todd Leavitt, president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, said, "Some TV may be too provocative for kids, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be on the air. I believe parents have an obligation to monitor their kids' TV viewing." According to the survey, teens whose parents monitored their activities were less likely to watch sexually oriented shows (USA Today, 9/7).

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