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New study links TV content & sexual activity of teens

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Adolescents who watch a significant amount of television with sexual content are twice as likely to engage in sexual intercourse as those who watch little of such programming, according to a study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The study also found that teens who watch lots of sex on TV are more likely to initiate sexual activities other than intercourse, such as “making out” and oral sex, a Sept. 7 news release by the RAND Corporation, which conducted the study, said.

“This is the strongest evidence yet that the sexual content of television programs encourages adolescents to initiate sexual intercourse and other sexual activities,” Rebecca Collins, a RAND psychologist who headed the study, said in the release. “The impact of television viewing is so large that even a moderate shift in the sexual content of adolescent TV watching could have a substantial effect on their sexual behavior.”

Collins said that whether a television show presents people only talking about sex or whether it actually portrays the sexual activity made little difference in the study. Teens were influenced equally by both forms of sexual content.

“Both affect adolescents’ perceptions of what is normal sexual behavior and propels their own sexual behavior,” she said.

Studies indicate that about two-thirds of television entertainment programs include sexual content, ranging from jokes and innuendo to intercourse and other behaviors, RAND noted.

Researchers from RAND found that adolescents who watched a lot of sexual content on television behaved sexually like teens that were 9 to 17 months older but watched only average amounts of TV with sexual content.

“The 12-year-olds who watched a lot of television with sexual content behaved like the 14- or 15-year-olds who watched the least amount of sexual television,” Collins said. “The advancement in sexual behavior we saw among kids who watched a lot of sexual television was striking.”

One positive note researchers found was that African American youth were less likely to begin engaging in sexual intercourse in the subsequent year after they watched more depictions of sexual risks or safety measures.

RAND also said adolescents were less likely to initiate sexual intercourse if their parents monitored their activities, if their parents had more education, if they lived with both parents, if their parents did not approve of them having sexual relations, if they were religious and if they were in good mental health.

Because of the importance of parental guidance, RAND researchers recommend that parents watch television shows with their children and talk about any sexual content that appears — even the jokes — the news release said.

“Talking about television can give parents a chance to express their own views about sex, and viewing shows with their kids will also help parents identify any programs they want to designate as off-limits,” Collins advised.

RAND Health is the nation’s largest independent health policy research organization. For this study, its researchers surveyed 1,792 adolescents aged 12 to 17 from across the nation, asking them about their television viewing habits and sexual behavior. The participants were questioned again one year later. The study appears in the September electronic edition of “Pediatrics,” the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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  • Erin Curry