Sexy TV = Pregnant Teens

Here’s the thing about media images: they live in us.  The dramatic nature of the impact of visual images, particularly those in motion, on our psyches is hard to describe to people who watch a lot of media.  It is understood naturally by people who have spent times of their adult lives without much interaction with visual media.

I was talking about this just the other morning with my community college human sexuality class.  Every student is doing a project on media images of sexuality.  One of the students choose to do images of violence.  He was able to speak relatively eloquently on how conversations and information about sexual violence can be productive in moving people to action, but images of sexual violence are more often than not used to sensationalize and titillate.  It was a good conversation.

What we didn’t go into in class is that images of violence can lead to more violent acts.  This has been shown time and time again with children and violent media images and violent video games.  In fact, the current issue (November, 2008) of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ academic journal, Pediatrics, has an article on this correlation.

But this further verification that children who view lots of violent media are more violent themselves is not what is grabbing headlines this week (when we were able to tear ourselves away from election mania, that is).  Rather, it was the new Pediatrics article that indicated a correlation between adolescent viewing of television with sexual content and pregnancy.  Let’s be clear here: This is not just a link between viewing sexual television and increased sexual activity (that link has already been made), but between viewing sexual content and becoming a teen parent (this is a brand-spanking-new link).

So what does it mean, research-wise?

Well, it probably doesn’t mean that if we take all sexual innuendo off television American teenagers will suddenly stop having sex – after all, American teenagers had plenty of sex before the television was even invented, much less started showing sexual innuendo.  Also, this study doesn’t show any directionality towards the findings: Maybe teenagers who see more sexual content are more likely to have unprotected sex, or maybe teenagers who have unprotected sex are more likely to seek out more sexual content on television.  If it’s actually the second, taking the sex off the TV probably won’t change adolescent pregnancy rates much.

On the other hand, the Washington Post article on the study suggested that there was a statistically significant different pregnancy rate between hi- and low-sexual-content-watchers even when sexual activity was taken into account.  This is a very interesting point, and adds some credibility to the suggestion that the content is in some way influencing unsafe sexual behavior – not just sexual behavior in general.  (As a side point, I’m quite disgruntled that I can’t access the full article myself.  If anyone has a digital copy of it, I would love for you to e-mail me a copy.)

And what does it mean, real-world-wise?

Well, that parents should talk with their kids and teenagers more.  Of course, I say everything means that, but it’s actually true!  By the time your child is a teenager, unless you’ve been pretty strict about media throughout their childhood, you’re not going to make many in-roads into changing their media-consuming habits.  However, you can make substantial in-roads into talking about and processing that media with your kids and teenagers.  The Pediatrics study didn’t go far enough in talking about protective factors against teenage pregnancy in the face of high sexual media consumption, but close analysis of the sexual content, and conversations about whether the outcomes are realistic in non-TV-lala-land are the best ways to help your teenager move past these images and behavior influences.

And, in honor of all of this conversation about TV with a high sexual content, here are some clips. And I want to point out that these are all easily accessible via Internet as well as TV:

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Karen — the study points to a correlation but that doesn’t necessarily mean causation.

    What we’re seeing here with the correlation between sexually titillating TV habits and risky sexual decisions may be something as simple as differences in libido.

    The youth who enjoy sexual themes on TV may also have a greater sexual appetite and may be more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors.

    The solution here may not be to restrict TV content but rather ensure that all youth regardless of sexual appetite have access to comprehensive sexuality education and access to safer sex supplies.

  2. I agree, Steve, which is why I said that the study suggested a “link” between the two, not a causal connection one way or the other.

    But I maintain my point that the study didn’t go far enough in investigating protective factors against teen pregnancy – maybe good sex ed is helpful, maybe highly active and talkative parents are helpful, maybe (as is suggested in a comment in the Washington Post today) “OR, maybe the kids with hot pants are coded by nature to have more frequent sex & hotter sex resulting in more pregnancies.
    No TV required.”

    The point is that we don’t really know – but we need to keep talking. That is the way to make biggest impact, regardless of whether it is the parents or the schools doing it.

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