A recent study by Dr. Laurence Steinberg shows that the media aren’t necessarily to blame for adolesecent sexual activity.
Before Google became my go-to for unanswered questions, I had to turn to something besides the Internet to appease my curiosity. With a sister four years older than I am, who was always suspiciously getting home from school early and locking herself in her bedroom with her boyfriend, I naturally had questions.
A 2006 study published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, revealed that adolescents between 12 and 14, who were exposed to sexualized media – television, movies, magazines and music – were more likely to engage in sexual activity by age 16.
A glamorized portrayal of sex in my preteen years didn’t lead me to lose my virginity – it was going to happen anyway. If anything, it made me feel less in-the-wrong to be interested in sex.
Psychology professor Dr. Laurence Steinberg revisited the 2006 survey and concluded that sexualized media do not promote sexual activity because adolescents who consume the highest amounts of sexy media are already interested in sex.
“A small portion of adolescents are not interested in sex. Hormones are part of us,” Dr. Lisa Rhodes, an American studies professor, said. “It is like showing someone a picture of food and saying that it will make them eat more. That assumes that the person didn’t eat in the first place.”
Blaming the media for adolescents’ sexual activity can lead to minors thinking that sex is ultimately a bad thing and that what their bodies are designed to feel is wrong.
“As long as there have been mass media, parents have blamed them for everything worrisome that teenagers do,” Steinberg said. “In the 1950s, people worried about comic books. Today they worry about ‘Cougar Town.’ It’s basically the same thing.”
The 2006 study was widely publicized, but the media seemed to focus on the results, instead of the inner workings of the research.
The study was conducted in two parts. First, data was collected on the amount of exposure 12-to-14-year-olds had to sexy media. Then, when the same group turned 16, it was surveyed again to see if subjects had lost their virginity.
The only controlled factors were parent-disapproval of teen sex and perceived permissive peer sexual norms. Also, the study was very localized. All of the 1,017 minors who participated in this study were from central North Carolina, and they were lumped into categories of “black” and “white.”
“They controlled for some factors that could have accounted for this relationship … but their controls were not very good,” Steinberg said. “We found that when you implement more conservative controls, the relationship disappears. Indeed, it looks like interest in sex fosters exposure to sexy media, rather than the reverse.”
As Rhodes said, some adolescents aren’t interested in sex.
Viewing sexualized media could potentially lead to children being more comfortable to talk with their parents about the topic of sex. But Steinberg said no evidence exists to prove that watching sex-heavy shows prompts educational conversations.
“Parents shouldn’t worry so much about what their kids watch, and they should not kid themselves by thinking they can deter their kids’ sexual activity by limiting what they watch on TV or listen to on their iPods,” he said of his study’s main message.
Parents should realize adolescents are going to be sexually active, stop pointing their fingers at the media and take the appropriate measures to educate them. Of course, abstinence is the only sure way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, but it is also unrealistic – kind of like it is unrealistic to ban children from watching a certain TV show. They are going to watch it anyway.
“Abstinence is a form of child abuse. It’s not letting the kids know the facts,” Rhodes said.
If a poorly constructed study can lead so many people to believe that engaging in sexy media can lead to more adolescents having sex, then it shouldn’t be difficult for them to understand that hormones are a fact of life, TV show or no TV show.
Samantha Krotzer can be reached at email@example.com.