Sexual Content on Television Linked Teenage Pregnancy

In the world of television programming, sex sells — perhaps a little too well with young viewers, a new study suggests.

The RAND Corp. study is the first of its kind to identify a link between teenagers’ exposure to sexual content on TV and teen pregnancies. The study, released Monday and published in the November edition of the journal Pediatrics, found that teens exposed to high levels of sexual content on television were twice as likely to be involved in a pregnancy in the following three years as teens with limited exposure.

The study’s authors are quick to point out that the factors leading to teen pregnancies are varied and complex — but they say it’s important for parents, teachers and pediatricians to understand that TV can be one of them.

“We were surprised to find this link,” said Anita Chandra, the study’s lead author and a behavioral scientist at RAND, a non-partisan, non-profit research organization. “But teens spend a good amount of their time watching television — an average of three hours a day — and we don’t know a lot about its impact on their health decisions …

“We don’t think that (TV) is necessarily more significant than some of the family and neighborhood factors that can lead to teen pregnancies. But even when we removed all the other factors, we still saw a compelling link between a high exposure to sexual content on television and teen pregnancies.”

How the study worked
Researchers interviewed 2,003 12- to 17-year-olds over the phone in 2001, and then followed up with those same youths in an effort to interview them again in 2002 and 2004.

The interviews focused in detail on teens’ TV viewing habits as well as their sexual attitudes, knowledge and behavior. Participants shared information about how much they watched 23 TV programs that were popular with teens at the time of the survey. The shows included a wide range of animated and live-action programs, reality shows, sitcoms and dramas that aired on broadcast networks and basic and premium cable channels. The programs included “Sex and the City,” “That ‘70s Show” and “Friends.”

“This might surprise people, but sitcoms had the highest sexual content,” Chandra said, noting that such content can include sexual dialogue in addition to actual sexual behavior.

By the third telephone interview, 744 of the youths said they had engaged in sexual intercourse, and 718 of them shared information about their pregnancy histories. Of that group, a total of 91 youths — 58 girls and 33 boys — said they had experienced a pregnancy or had gotten a girl pregnant.

In the final analysis, teens who had watched the most sexual content on television during the three-year study period were twice as likely to have been involved in a pregnancy as teens with the lowest levels of exposure.

Chandra said TV-watching was strongly connected with teen pregnancy even when other factors were considered, including grades, family structure and parents’ education level.

But the study didn’t adequately address other issues, such as self-esteem, family values and income, contends Elizabeth Schroeder, executive director of Answer, a teen sex education program based at Rutgers University.

“The media does have an impact, but we don’t know the full extent of it because there are so many other factors,” Schroeder said.

Bill Albert, chief program officer at the nonprofit National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, praised the study and said it “catches up with common sense.”

“Media helps shape the social script for teenagers. Most parents know that. This is just good research to confirm that,” Albert said.

The study, paid for by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, followed a 2004 study by some of the same scientists that indicated watching sexual content on TV can make teens more likely to have sex at earlier ages.

Chandra said the new findings are significant given the intractable social and public health problems associated with teen pregnancies. While the teen pregnancy rate in the United States has dropped considerably since the early ‘90s, the U.S. rate remains one of the highest among the world’s industrialized nations. Nearly 1 million young women between the ages of 15 and 19 become pregnant each year in the U.S., and they are more likely than other teens to drop out of high school and live in poverty.

The role of parents, others
So what’s a parent to do under these circumstances? Lock up the television set for good and throw away the key?

On the contrary, the study’s authors advise parents to become familiar with the shows their kids watch — and, whenever possible and practical, to watch TV with them.

“By taking the time to watch together, parents can turn these into teachable moments … and opportunities for frank discussions about sex,” Chandra said.

“Parents (also) might want to limit some exposure. But realistically, this kind of content is everywhere. Our study only looks at TV. There’s also the Internet, music, magazines.”

Chandra noted that many TV programs fail to give viewers realistic depictions of the potential consequences of sex, such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

“If teens are getting any of their information about sex from TV, they’re very rarely going to get a balanced portrayal,” she said. “When there is a portrayal, how often is it coupled with a discussion of contraception use or safer sex or the consequences of what could happen?”

An ongoing controversy
Of course, parents, religious leaders and politicians have lambasted the broadcasting industry for years and called for curbs on content they consider objectionable. In response to the news of this new study, the National Association of Broadcasting released the following statement:

“Though NAB has not had a chance to review the report, it’s worth noting that broadcasters encourage parents and caregivers to use the V-chip and other program blocking technologies that would screen out shows that are inappropriate for children. We would also point out that broadcast television is generally far less explicit than programming found on cable, satellite and on the Internet.”

The study’s authors insist they aren’t taking aim at any particular television show, channel or network. Instead, they’re calling for more realistic plot lines and discussions of consequences — not a wholesale change in programming from, say, “Sex and the City” to “Sex and the Condom.”

“Right now the message teens are getting is that everything is great, and there really are no consequences to sex,” Chandra said.

“Since the time that we did our data collection, the amount of sexual content on TV has doubled. … It’s important for kids to have the tools to understand what they’re watching.”

Television Can Turn Your Kids To Little Monsters

American research has revealed that too much time in watching TV can cause bad behaviour in early childhood.

Researchers studied the viewing habits of more than 2700 children at age two and again at five.

Five-year-olds who watched TV for two hours or more a day were more likely to develop behavioural problems or have trouble with social skills. Having a TV in their bedroom also increased the risk and often led to sleep difficulties.

But children could be weaned off TV without lasting damage. Those who were heavy viewers at age two but reduced their exposure by the age of five showed no increased risk of problems.

"It is vital for clinicians to emphasise the importance of reducing television viewing in early childhood among those children with early use," said the study's senior author, Dr Cynthia Minkovitz of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

The study, published in the Pediatrics journal, has reignited fierce debate around the influence of TV on the developing child brain. Recent studies have blamed TV for causing ADHD and autism, a claim vigorously contested by some childhood development experts.

Australian specialists told The Age that studies of viewing habits without considering other factors were often flawed.

"Children who are at risk or vulnerable who watch a lot of violent television may be inclined to be more aggressive but that really only applies to a select group of kids," said Professor Margot Prior from Melbourne University, one of Australia's leading experts on child development and behavioural adjustment. "If parents manage television and monitor what their children see and are open to explaining and discussing what's on television then you can identify very few, if any, harmful effects."'

Sixteen per cent of two-year-olds and 15 per cent of five-year-olds watched two hours or more of TV a day. Forty-one per cent of all children had a TV in their bedroom.

Professor Alasdair Vance, head of academic child psychiatry at the Royal Children's Hospital, said the younger the child the less time they should spend watching TV.

But he said many programs such as Play School or Sesame Street had educational benefit and TV could not solely be blamed for bad behaviour. "A given child watching two or more hours of television a day may have little contact with an empathic, nurturing, sensitive and responsive parent who can help them develop those emotion management, anxiety management and aggression management skills," he said.

Australian Childhood Foundation chief executive Joe Tucci said TV was often used as a "babysitter" and parents should act as a filter for preschoolers.

"Kids are like a sponge at that age," he said. "They're taking in what's going on around them and trying to develop rules for how the world works, and if those rules are based on activities that have some violence in it then they're the rules that they'll try to emulate."
Viewing habits

Proportion of children watching two or more hours of TV a day:
* Age 2: 16 per cent
* Age 5: 15 per cent
* Proportion of all children with a television in their bedroom: 41 per cent.

Telling your Child You are in Love with Someone

Be candid with your child
If it’s a nice, feel-good story, don’t be afraid to tell your child how you actually met your lady friend. When you paint a nice romantic picture, you are, in some way, teaching your child that romance is important and something to be treasured. Reciting your story may also cause your child to appreciate your honesty, which is a language that all children speak.

Inquire about your child’s feelings
Ask your child how he/she feels about the fact you’ve met a new “friend.” Chances are they will be happy for you. A well-loved child is an empathetic child. Our children want us be happy and they know better than anyone (hopefully) that being hugged and kissed is something everyone needs -- even dad.

Reassure your child
Remind your child that he/she is, and will always be, the most important person in your life. No one and nothing will ever change that fact.

Propose a potential meeting
Honor your child and show him that you believe that he has the maturity to handle the situation. Make flexible (i.e., no promises) future plans and suggest that “when the time is right, perhaps we can arrange a get-together.” Whatever you do, don’t rush the situation. It’s better to take your time and play it safe. You don’t want to get your child emotionally involved with a good woman only to see the relationship dissolve and watch your child’s heart break when you split up.

Prepare your child for the introduction
If you do plan to introduce your child to someone, reveal what you like about your new friend beforehand. For example, you could show that your new interest has a sense of humor and likes to have fun with a conversation that might go like this: “You know what Alison said to me today? She said something really funny. She said that I walk like a monkey.” Doing so prepares your child and it makes it emotionally easier for the time when they do meet her. They will meet her with a sense of established trust, and children understand the language of laughter.

Maintain family traditions
Don’t start canceling family traditions because you’ve met someone. These traditions are very important to a child, and they are what have the most positive impact in their lives. Not only do children remember these traditions for the rest of their lives, but they are likely to pass on to their children the very same tradition-torch that you or your parents invented. Don’t screw with family traditions, though you can include a new participant.

Ask for permission
If you have teenage children, ask for their permission if you want a “sleepover” at your new friend’s house. Assure them that if you are away from the house, you will have your cell phone with you, and that it will always be turned on should they need to contact you.

The key to a child’s happiness
Clear and consistent communication is so important for our children. To feel safe, loved and appreciated, they need to know that no one is going to come into your life and take you away from them. Give them that respect, and they’ll always be happy that daddy found love again. Isn’t that what you want?