Study Links Racy TV to Teen Pregnancy
Special Report - November 4, 2008
Frequent exposure to sexual content in TV programming can lead to an increased likelihood of teens becoming pregnant or being responsible for a pregnancy during the next three years, according to a study released Monday in Pediatrics. Led by RAND Corporation behavioral scientist Anita Chandra, the study entitled “Does Watching Sex on Television Predict Teen Pregnancy? Findings from a National Longitudinal Survey of Youth,” used data from 2,003 youth ages 1217 who were interviewed three times between 2001 and 2004 regarding their television viewing habits and involvement in any pregnancies. The study built on previous less extensive research by many of the same researchers, which linked earlier sexual activity and a higher rate of teen pregnancy to exposure to sexual content on TV. It is the first study, however, to demonstrate a link between exposure to sexual content on TV and becoming pregnant or being responsible for a pregnancy before the age of 20.
In this instance, teens were asked how often they watched any of 23 broadcast and cable shows that are popular among teens and have been determined to contain high levels of sexual content, defined as including depictions of sex or dialogue or discussion about sex. The shows in question consisted of dramas, comedies, reality, and animated shows including “Sex and the City,” “That ‘70s Show,” and “Friends.” The study estimated “that the proportion of teens who are likely to become pregnant or be responsible for a pregnancy in their teen years is two times greater among those who view high levels of televised sexual content (those in the 90th percentile) than among those who view low levels (those in the 10th percentile).” Researchers made adjustments for other factors including grades, family structure, parents’ education level, and problem behaviors like skipping school. While the rate of pregnancy was consistent across all age groups for teens who watched the racy shows, there were more pregnancies among the oldest teens.
The teen pregnancy rate in the United States had declined every year for the past 15 years until 2006, the last year for which data is available, when there was a three percent jump in the teen pregnancy rate. North Carolina’s teen pregnancy rate was 50 percent higher than the national average in 2006. At nearly one million teen pregnancies per year, the United States leads industrialized nations with the highest pregnancy rate among 15 to 19 year olds each year. The majority of those pregnancies are unplanned.
The RAND researchers hope that the study’s results will encourage television industry leaders to examine how to “include messages to teens about the consequences of sexual activity” in programming. They also emphasize the need for parents to monitor their teens’ television viewing and educate and discuss with them the consequences of sex.
“This study helps to prove the common sense conclusion that children are affected by what they watch,” says Matt Lytle, director of research for the North Carolina Family Policy Council. “When the majority of television shows promote promiscuous sexual activities, this sends the false signal that this behavior is the accepted standard. This programming is especially egregious because it rarely discusses the risks involved with sexual promiscuity.”
Copyright © 2008. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.