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Kids and Sexy TV

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Moms, do you know what your daughters are watching?

teenage girl watching tv

Dr. Wendy Walsh: Lately, I've noticed my almost-12-year-old daughter closing the door to my bedroom while she watches TV. And the last couple times I intruded, I saw that she was watching an ABC Family show called "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." The show's website warns that viewer discretion is advised. I assume that's because the plot deals with teen pregnancy, premature motherhood, and every kind of relationship dilemma ever -- including sex. Yikes!

No doubt about it. Our media is getting more risqué every year. And that media is becoming more and more accessible to our kids and teens. In a UCLA study on adolescent sexuality and the media, the exposure rates are shocking. On average, adolescent viewers see 143 incidents of sexual behavior on network television at prime time each week, with far more portrayals of sexual activity between unmarried couples as between spouses. As much as 80 percent of all movies shown on network or cable television stations have sexual content, and even music videos are filled with sexual feelings and impulses. Most disturbing is the fact that the sexual messages on television tend to be shown in a positive light, with little discussion of the risks of unprotected sexual intercourse and few portrayals of dangerous consequences.

But the consequences of sexual activity in the real world are very real. Among adolescent girls in the United States between 15 and 17 years of age, 75 per 1,000 become pregnant each year, a rate two to seven times higher than rates in other industrialized nations. And 25 percent of sexually active teenagers and 13 percent of all adolescents between the ages of 13 and 19 become infected with sexually transmitted diseases each year. That's 3 million cases!

But the million-dollar question is this: Is there a link between media exposure to sexual content and adolescent sexual behavior? That's still up for debate. Some sociologists believe that greater exposure to media in general leads kids to adopt the values, beliefs, and behaviors that are portrayed, particularly when they aren't accompanied by scenes with negative consequences. And research on violence in the media backs this up. More violent media leads to more aggression in children.

But sex is different. Sexuality may not be learned through observation the way aggression is. For instance, it's been found that general exposure to alcohol advertising does not affect a teen's alcohol use. Yet, if the teens really like the content in the ad -- like the music or humor -- then it is linked to an increase of alcohol use.

And sexual content? Researchers are still trying to determine what factors in sexual media create premature or unsafe sexual behavior. For now, I plan on sitting through that ABC show with my kid, to explain any negative consequences that the producers fail to highlight.

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7 comments so far | Post a comment now
bethany belton February 2, 2010, 9:21 AM

Good on you for monitoring what your beautiful Girls are watching.

I know my step-daughter, Bridget was allowed to watch whatever she wanted as a pre-teen/teenager (to my horror) - and she LOVED all the ‘racey’ stuff and I firmly believe that that resulted in her becoming sexually active VERY early (ie: 13).

On the other hand - I volunteered (for over 2 years) at Jessie’s - a Shelter for Teen Moms, and from where I sat, these girls KNOWINGLY got pregnant cuz they wanted someone to love and someone to love them back (and sadly thought the Guy would stick around - which 98% of the guys were no where to be found.
These poor young women with their lives changed forever - alone.

nome February 2, 2010, 9:47 AM

Teenagers have always had sex. There are these little things in our bodies called hormones that make us horny. It’s just a fact. The issue is not whether teens have sex (as they have always done) but whether they are being smart about it. Do they know the possible consequences? Are they taking precautions? Are they being emotionally and psychologically sound in their decisions? That is more what we need to ask. And having media portray realistic sexual relationships would be an excellent step, not these romanticized versions of love lives.

Rose February 2, 2010, 11:44 AM

Perhaps we should take a moment and think about what would happen if sex were not a hidden, sordid activity. We have sex to procreate. That’s a fact. None of us would be here without it, it’s a natural part of life. The fact that other countries such as France, for example, put no age-based viewer discretion warnings on TV shows that (God forbid!) portray sex in a positive light, but that the United States does, should perhaps tell us something about how we view sex in our culture and how subliminating it only makes us more obsessed with it. Other people in other places accept it as a part of life. For that matter, French adolescents are more comfortable with their bodies and are less likely to have eating disorders than American adolescents, because French children see more images of healthy bodies (naked or not) than American children do. Awareness of the existence of sex is not bad for your twelve-year-old daughter. She should know about it - if she doesn’t, then you’re in far worse trouble than if she does. Actually having sex at her age is a different matter and is, of course, something you should protect her from doing. I also won’t try to protect American TV shows per se and the quality (or lack thereof) of their portrayal of sex, but the fact remains: sex is a part of life and your daughter should know it exists, and I think it is far healthier to watch something a little racy than to watch something traumatically violent, which also dominates American television.

michelle February 2, 2010, 12:53 PM

Rose, you posted my thoughts exactly. Is it a coincidence that they show way more sex on TV in Europe, with much lower teen pregnancy rates? Once again “Dr” Walsh is selling us her ridiculous “OMG protect our daughters” sex-panic, with no sign that she actually put any thought into it. March 25, 2010, 3:37 PM

I am so excited to see your article. When ever I post articles which complain about all the sex and violence in tv and the media, nobody reads it… other articles get a LOT of traffic.

My question, do you think all the sex and violence has anything to do with all the 700,000 plus sex offenders we now have on the national sex offender registry? March 25, 2010, 8:13 PM

And you may want to add that not only have teens been having sex for centuries, but NOW they are being arrested and branded sex offenders for doing what comes natural.

CJ April 28, 2010, 10:11 AM

I’m glad you caught your daughter watching the show. I’m 17 and I watched it, it’s definitely not appropriate for a girl under 14 I think. However, if your child is going to be watching ‘racy’ television, it should be shows like this. The kids are constantly talking to their parents about their problems, it encourages safe sex (if you’re going to have it at all) and at the end of every episode a cast member talks about how pregnancy or stds are always a risk when you engage in that kind of behavior and encourages protection and for you to talk to a trusted adult. It doesn’t make Amy (the teen mother)’s life look glamorous in any way, and while it’s rather unrealistic, it still (I think) would discourage premature sex.

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