Sex in the Media: A New Study Finds Troubling Links to Teens

I allow my eight-year-old son to play a virtual world online game because it satisfies his sense of adventure (medieval style!) and it requires him to problem solve -- to figure out how to turn wheat into bread, say, or to determine what sorts of metals are required to make a hatchet. And yet the game bothers me. The iconography is very sexualized: the women who lure players into the games often sport lusty cleavage; many avatars are dressed like wenches.

This is not unusual, says the American Association of Pediatrics in a policy statement issued this week, and it should, indeed, worry parents. "New evidence points to the media adolescents use frequently (television, music, movies, magazines, and the Internet) as important factors in the initiation of sexual intercourse," notes the statement. "There is a major disconnect between what mainstream media portray -- casual sex and sexuality with no consequences -- and what children and teenagers need."

What they need, says the report, is not abstinence-only education -- the kids are ignoring that with the help of a surfeit of sexualized images and scenarios easily available online and off. A 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 46% of high school seniors have had sex, and about one in six have had sex with four or more partners. Worse, of the sexually active students, 39% said they did not use a condom during their last sexual encounter. It follows, then, that those sexually active seniors need education about the consequences of teen sex. And they need protection.

There are other eye-opening numbers. The United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the Western world. More concerning is the risky, and often coerced, behavior of young teens. A quarter of teenagers have had a sexually transmitted infection; one in ten girls who have had teen sex say that the first time was against their will. And despite representing just 25% of the sexually active population in the United States, 15- to 24-year-olds contract nearly half of all new STIs every year.

Don't expect television and gaming producers to change their products any time soon. Some estimates have the video game industry topping $20 billion in 2010. It would take some serious regulatory muscle to slow that economic engine down.

Reality TV is Not Helping

But the truth is that sexualized online gaming is only a small part of the problem. Most troubling for pediatricians (if the order of problems in the report is any indication) is reality TV, with shows like The Bachelor and Temptation Island setting up unrealistic scenarios in which partnering has no health consequences, or any consequences at all, really. A study of college students cited by the AAP indicated that viewing reality television shows "correlated with beliefs in a double standard -- that men are sex driven and men and women are sexual adversaries."

If reality TV were watched mostly by those who already were sexually active, this might have less of an effect on teenagers, who could put the scenarios in a context based on their own experiences. That's not the case, however; less sexually experienced college students watch more reality television than their more experienced counterparts, "which suggests the importance of such programs for sexual socialization."

To a parent in her 30s or 40s, these shows seem transparent and silly. A bunch of girls live in a nice house with one man, and the ones that are most willing to have sex (or, at the very least, make out in salacious hot tub scenes) are the most likely to get the guy. But watching this sexual content (and even the discussion of sex on the shows, which can have an impact equal to the depiction of sex) "hastens the initiation of teen sex," according to the recent study.

A Connection to Teen Pregnancy is Made

No matter how one feels about teenage sexual activity, the consequences appear to be real and unfortunate. According to another study, even after controlling for other risk factors like family stability and income levels, rates of teen pregnancy increase if there is greater exposure to sex on TV. Movies such as Juno (depicting a teen who becomes pregnant and has to deal with the consequences) and old-fashioned after-school specials are the exception to the rule; most television aimed at teens and young adults doesn't connect STIs and pregnancy to sexual activity.

The media's messages are impossible to avoid -- it is embedded in everything from reality TV to movies (virtually every R-rated movie aimed at teens has included at least one nude scene and, often, several sex scenes), to advertisements (over $300 million is spent each year on ads for erectile dysfunction drugs), to online and offline games and Facebook. While I was a little shocked to recently find the 15-year-old little sister of a friend engaging in sexual banter with a male friend on her Facebook stream, the AAP says this isn't shocking. "The media may act as a 'superpeer' in convincing adolescents that sexual activity is normative behavior for young teenagers," their policy statement asserts.

Taking TV Out of Bedrooms

The AAP makes a number of recommendations for parents and pediatricians, beginning with limiting childrens' exposure to inappropriate media (especially PG-13 and R-rated movies), and removing TV and internet access from childrens' bedrooms (a recommendation, incidentally, that's also made in the interest of reducing obesity, which has a link to unfettered access to TV). Sexual education that includes information about contraceptives and avoiding disease is key; the AAP advises against abstinence-only education, calling it "ineffective."

The advertising industry was noted by the recent study as being especially problematic on this front; the AAP calls for more contraceptive advertisement and less erectile dysfunction marketing, with the suggestion that ED drug ads be limited to airing after 10 PM. The AAP also says that pediatricians and parents "should encourage the entertainment industry to produce more programming that contains responsible sexual content and that focuses on the interpersonal relationship in which sexual activity takes place."

No End to Reality TV?

Despite the obvious problems with shows like Bachelor and Joe Millionaire and Momma's Boys, the conveyor belt of reality dating shows rattles on. In a recent interview, Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss admitted that contestants typically do have sex during the show, and a lot of it (participants are tested for STIs before being sequestered together). Fourth-season star Bob Guiney, said Fleiss, had the "highest batting average" with "five-and-a-half" couplings (whatever that means).

It's this enthusiasm that suggests that the Bachelor and shows of its ilk, despite their damaging impact on teenagers, aren't going anywhere. As creator Fleiss told Reality TV World, "We weren't sure going into the series whether or not women would really care and whether or not they would really compete for the love of one guy... [but] once we saw girls hyperventilating and what not, we knew it was working." Fleiss added that it was best if viewers "hated" the contestants.

Whether or not the AAP will be successful in its campaign to reduce the sexualization of media available to children remains uncertain. Given the financial interests involved, the answer to that question could very likely be "no." Sex sells, it always has, and it sells particularly well to those who don't know any better: your kids.