Parents have been complaining about television's negative influence for almost as long as television has existed. It's not uncommon for the tube to be singled out as the primary cause of moral decay among American youth. There's too much sex and it's hurting our children, they say. Well, it turns out they just might be right. While it has been widely believed that watching sexual content on television can affect a child's attitudes toward sex, it was mostly unsubstantiated.
"There's been a lot of concern about whether television is influencing kids to have sex. However, there was very little scientific evidence on the issue up to this point. We knew that kids who have sex at an earlier age also watch a lot of sex on TV. But we haven't known which direction that causality goes, we just knew there was an association," explains Rebecca Collins, senior behavioral scientist at Rand Corporation. Rand went ahead with a study of 1,762 adolescents funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to try to find the causal link. They surveyed 12- to 17-year-olds about their sexual experience and their television viewing habits and then followed up with the group a year later. The results, while logical, gave scientific support to the idea that watching sex on television helped to predict sexual behavior in teenagers.
"If you compared the kids who watched the very most sex to the kids who watched the very least, the rates of intercourse were nearly double in the high exposure group. For example, at age 16, 16 percent who watched very little sex on TV had sex that year versus a group who watched heavy sexual content where 30 percent had sex within that year," Collins says.
Exposure to all this sex on television apparently makes these teens advance faster sexually. In effect, they're acting older than they really are. When it comes to intercourse, kids who watch high levels of sex on television act like someone nine months older. For other sexual behavior, that timeframe went up to two years, meaning that a 13-year-old exposed to above average levels of sexual content might act more like a 15-year-old. This is especially frightening in an age when one in four sexually active teens has a sexually transmitted disease.
It's not just sexual action that has this effect on teens, though, sexual talk on television is equally damaging. "The reason kids are having sex more when they see sex on TV isn't because they're mimicking. What's happening is that from both behavior and talk about sex they're getting the message that sex is really important and that everyone is always thinking about or doing it all the time. That's what's influencing kids," Collins explains.
Since sexual content appears in about 64 percent of all TV programs, how can we fix the problem? One suggestion is for parents to watch television with their kids and use sexual content as an opportunity to discuss sex. "A lot of parents do talk to their kids about sex, but bringing it up in a context would make it a lot easier, and television could provide that opportunity," Collins believes. It's highly doubtful that sex on TV is going away. Therefore, it is important that parents take notice, know what their kids are watching and be active in their children's lives.