HBO Programs with sexually oriented conversations have as much effect as those that depict sex or imply that sex has happened, says psychologist Rebecca Collins of RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. Her study is reported in the Pediatrics online journal.
The research is the first that takes into account other factors linked to early teen sex — such as poor grades, low parent education, having older friends and living in a one-parent home — and tracks how TV-watching might predict sexual activity, says Jane Brown, a University of North Carolina media researcher who specializes in adolescents. The phone survey of 12- to 17-year-olds also took into account sexual experience at the start of the study.
Kids who said they watched more sex-oriented programs at the beginning of the year were more likely than others their age to become sexually active during the next year. Those in the top 10% for viewing of sexually related scenes were twice as likely to engage in intercourse as those in the lowest 10%, Collins says. The more sex-oriented scenes they saw, the more likely they were to become sexually active.
"It's social learning: 'monkey see, monkey do,' " Collins says. "If everyone's talking about sex or having it, and something bad hardly ever comes out of it, because it doesn't on TV, then they think, 'Hey, the whole world's doing it, and I need to.' "
The study didn't take into account a teen's interest in sex or feelings of sexual readiness as the year began. So the findings might exaggerate TV's influence in causing kids to start sex, says adolescent psychologist Joseph Allen of the University of Virginia.
"Sexually explicit TV viewing is exactly the kind of thing adolescents would do if they were interested in becoming sexually active," Allen says. "She may be picking up on teenagers who are about to seek out sexual experiences." Different levels of readiness might have a small effect on the findings, Collins says.
Physical maturity also matters. More sexually developed youngsters feel readier for sex and are more likely to be sexually active, Allen says, "and almost certainly these kids would be watching more sexy TV shows."
Television executives were skeptical, too. "With all due respect to RAND, we do not believe that one show can alter a person's sexual behavior," says HBO spokesman Jeff Cusson. HBO aired Sex and the City, one of the programs tracked in the study.
"Some TV may be too provocative for kids, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be on the air," says Todd Leavitt, president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. "As the father of three daughters, I believe parents have an obligation to monitor their kids' TV viewing."
Teens whose parents supervised their activities closely were less likely to watch sexually oriented shows.
"Most important is keeping the set out of children's bedrooms, because otherwise the kids have complete control over what they watch," Brown says. Studies show that about 3 of 5 teens have TVs in their bedrooms, she says.