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Sexual content on television linked to teen pregnancy

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Teenagers who have a high level of exposure to sexual content on television are twice as likely to be involved in a pregnancy compared to those teens who have limited exposure to such content, according to a study published in the November issue of the journal Pediatrics.

“We know that if a child is watching more than an hour of TV a day, we know there’s a sexual scene in [the] content every 10 minutes, then they’re getting a fair amount of sexual content,” Anita Chandra, the study’s lead author and a behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, which conducted the study, said.

Previous studies have linked sex on TV to earlier initiation of sex, but the RAND study is the first to demonstrate an association between sex on TV and teenage pregnancy. Researchers evaluated 23 sitcoms, dramas, animated shows and reality shows on broadcast and cable for sexual content and then asked teenagers how frequently they watched the shows, which included “Sex and the City,” “That ’70s Show” and “Friends.”

Chandra told CNN.com that even when accounting for other factors such as demographics and risk-taking behaviors, the connection between televised sexual content and teen pregnancy remained.

“You cannot expect to have a sexually saturated society with all of your media outlets, but then, at the same time, be surprised when this influences people and their behaviors,” Yolanda Wimberly, an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the Morehouse School of Medicine, told CNN. “If you’re going to do it, then you need to make sure you follow it up with education that people need to make responsible decisions.”

The study is based on a national survey of about 2,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17 who were recruited in 2001 and asked about their television viewing habits and sexual behavior. The participants were surveyed again in 2002 and in 2004. The latest analysis is based upon results from about 700 participants who had engaged in sexual intercourse by the third survey and reported their pregnancy history, RAND said.

David Walsh, a psychologist at the National Institute on Media and Family, told USA Today that parents are “delegating sex education to Hollywood.”

“If I’m a 15-year-old kid and no one’s really talking to me about sex and I’m watching a lot of sex on TV, it’s not a direct, conscious decision — but over time I start to think, ‘That’s what people do. That’s the norm.'”

Sitcoms in the study had the highest sexual content, and observers noted that a steady stream of sexual innuendo on such shows takes a toll on young minds.

“It says, ‘Everybody’s thinking about it, everybody’s doing it … nobody’s suffering any negative consequences,'” Jane Brown of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill said.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the study makes him wonder when television has ever been associated with anything positive.

“While it’s easy to become enraged with Hollywood, the burden of protecting our children falls on us,” Perkins wrote in his Washington Update e-mail Nov. 1. “We cannot be complacent about what our kids are watching and expect them to take our values seriously.

“Sex education — or the lack of it — starts in the home. Don’t let your television do the talking. Send your kids a clear message on abstinence before their innocence goes right down the tubes,” Perkins added.

In a news release about the study, RAND said broadcasters should include more realistic depictions of sex in scripts and portray consequences such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The experts also advised parents to consider limiting children’s access to programming with sexual content, and they said pediatricians should ask adolescents about their media use and discuss the consequences that accompany sexual activity.

Chandra noted that television is one component among many that influence Americans during their developmental years.

“Television is just one part of a teenager’s media diet that helps to influence their behavior,” Chandra said. “We should also look at the roles that magazines, the Internet and music play in teens’ reproductive health.”

The National Institutes of Health reported this summer that teenage pregnancies in the United States rose from 2005 to 2006 for the first time since 1991.
Compiled by Baptist Press staff writer Erin Roach.

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