A recently released study published in Pediatrics and sponsored by the Rand corporation has linked watching sex on television and teen pregnancy. Data from a national longitudinal study on adolescents from 12 to 17 years of age were used from over a three year period to measure experience of a teen pregnancy. Adolescents were surveyed to assess whether exposure to sexual content on television predicted subsequent pregnancy for girls or responsibility for pregnancy for boys.

Results showed that teens who were exposed to high levels of sexual content on television, were twice as likely to experience a pregnancy (either directly for girls or to be responsible for a pregnancy for boys) in the subsequent three years, compared with teens watching less sexual content on television.

Points to make regarding and related to the study findings:

  • The majority of television shows teens are exposed to with sexual content as described by the study release don't accurately communicate the health outcomes, either physical or emotional, associated with the high-risk behavior. These can include increased risk for sexually transmitted infections, impaired reproductive health, and negative emotional repercussions. Rather, television shows typically glamorize sex with little, if any, depiction of potential consequences.
  • In addition, television shows typically do not portray characters that choose to practice sexual abstinence outside of marriage who do not have the accompanying concerns of their counterparts who engage in sexual activity - two being concerns about possible nonmarital pregnancy and being at increased risk for disease.
  • While as the study author states, the amount of sexual content on television has doubled in recent years, prevention messaging has not. Broadcasters need to take a more responsible approach to public health given the current epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases and infections which exists among our young people.
  • Accurate health messaging, including the knowledge about the consequences and repercussions of high-risk behavior, such as adolescent pre-marital sex, is critical for prevention efforts. Reinforcement that youth are capable of practicing risk avoidance behavior or sexual abstinence is also key.
  • Given the level of exposure teens have to both the television shows measured in the Rand study and similar messaging from other media bombarding youth with sexual content, both parents and health care providers need to emphasize the prevention message, the best of which is risk avoidance or abstinence, and the benefits of practicing it.

Recommended reading for both parents and young adults: "Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting our Children," by Drs. Joe McIlhaney and Freda McKissic Bush. Watch for an FRC Book Lecture at the beginning of 2009 at which Drs. McIlhaney and Bush will discuss how new research in the field of neuroscience is shedding light on the impact having sex has on teens and young adults.