Medias Influence on Teenage Sexual Behavior

The first step in combating the dangerous influence the media has on your teenager, is to educate yourself regarding the exact information your child is being exposed to.  The second step is to examine what influences your child is being exposed to in your own home.

According to the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 46% of all high school seniors have had sexual intercourse, and 14 have had four or more partners.  Pregnancy rates have generally been decreasing since 1991, but for the first time in 15 years the birth rate increased 3% between 2005 – 2006.  

Pregnancy isn’t the only issue regarding early sexual activity among teenagers.  Adolescents have one of the highest sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates of any age group.   The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported that one in four teens had an STI.   While 15-24 year old’s represent just 25% of the sexually active population in the United States, they contract nearly half of all new STIs every year.  The US has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the Western Hemisphere.

 Adolescents in America spend about 7 hours, one-quarter of the 24 hour day, under the influence of different types of media which are filled with sexual messages and images, many of which are unrealistic.  More than 75% of prime-time TV programs contain sexual content, yet any mention of risk, responsibility or consequences of sexual activity is only about 14%.  The amount of sexual content on TV nearly doubled between 1997 and 2001.

Enter “reality TV” in which many shows bring participants together for the sole purpose of “hooking up” with multiple partners, furthering the illusion for adolescents that  random sexual exploitation is not only accepted, but carries no downside whether it be pregnancy, STI’s or emotional devastation.   

“Parents need to realize that the media are teaching their kids about sex. And if they don’t encourage schools to teach comprehensive sex education then their kids will learn a whole lot that parents are not happy with,” says Victor C. Strasburger, MD, Chief, Division of Adolescent Medicine, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

Continuing to be a major source of sexual suggestiveness, music lyrics contain sexual material, including degrading sexual references, about 40% of the time, and healthy sexual messages only about 6%.

Today’s teen magazines, popular with pre-adolescent and adolescent girls devote an average of 2 1/2 pages per issue to sexual topics and deciding when to lose one’s virginity.

Online pornography, now a $1 billion industry, cannot be regulated, and in a  national sample of 1500  10 – 17 year-old’s, about 50% had been exposed to online pornography in the previous year

Social networking Web sites where teens present themselves publicly are often sexually suggestive in description and conversation and often include “sexting”, which includes nude pictures or videos of themselves.

The old adage “sex sells”, is still prevalent.  Women and men are likely to be shown in suggestive clothing, partially or completely nude, involved in a myriad of sexual situations or the very act of sex.  The onslaught of exaggerated commercials for erectile dysfunction (ED), penile enhancement, sexual enhancement lotions are present everywhere.  Even “family food establishments” such as Burger King, Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen pump up their ads with sexual overtones.

As one expert noted, “When sexual jokes are used to sell everything from rice to roach killer, from cars to carpets, it’s hard to remember that sex can unite two souls, can inspire awe. Individually, these ads are harmless enough, sometimes even funny, but the cumulative effect is to degrade and devalue sex.”

Pediatrics, the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), published online today a Policy Statement from the Council on Communications and Media (CCM) regarding Sexuality, Contraception and the Media, stating “There is a major disconnect between what mainstream media portray—casual sex and sexuality with no consequences—and what Television, film, music, and the Internet are all becoming increasingly sexually explicit.”

Recent evidence points to the media frequently used by adolescents  as an important factor in the initiation of sexual intercourse between adolescents.  Straightforward information about human sexuality and the need for contraception, and protection from infection when having sex is an important facet in the education of children and teenagers.

Believing that “abstinence-only” sex education has been shown to be ineffective, Strasburger, lead author said, “Eight peer-reviewed, controlled clinical trials have revealed that giving teenagers freer access to condoms does not increase their sexual activity or encourage virginal teenagers to begin having sex, but it does increase the use of condoms among those who are already sexually active.”

Adding that advising teenagers to “Wait until you’re older to begin having sex, but if you can’t wait, use birth control” is a double message. Strasburg says, “But, it is a double message that every teenager in America can understand and benefit from, and it is consistent with normal adolescent psychology, because it acknowledges that adolescents don’t always listen to their elders.”

When the media appears to herald “non-abstinence” by way of programming and advertising, advertisements of condoms, birth control pills, and emergency contraception on TV and radio could further decrease the teen pregnancy and STI rate. Yet, several networks refuse such advertisements.

Strasburg and the AAP urge responsibility from the entertainment industry in producing more responsible sexual content focusing on relationships, not just sex.  Advertisers are urged to stop using sex to sell and stress that ads for erectile dysfunction (ED) should not be broadcast until after 10pm.    Schools are urged to  insist on comprehensive sex education programs in an effort to counter the influence of sexually suggestive and explicit media.

The AAP says there should be a national task force on children, adolescents and the media to be convened by child advocacy groups in conjunction with the CDC or National Institutes of Health.

Parents can help their children make the journey on the sexual information highway,  emerging with a clearer understanding of their emotions, their bodies and recognize sex as a healthy and natural part of life.  Parent/child conversations about sex are important and should be encouraged.  Consequences of unprotected sex should be discussed and  children should understand that not all affection and touching must culminate in sexual intercourse.    

Teens should be able to say and respect the word “no” in sexual situations.  Knowledge and use of contraceptives are important for teens to understand as a normal part of a sexual relationship.  Parents should engage in open conversation regarding sexual activity with children at the earliest appropriate age, expressing moral and spiritual beliefs they wish to convey to their child. This can serve as a blueprint for further discussion as the child reaches adolescense.

“Sex education starts from the minute they change their baby’s diaper and what they refer to babies’ genitalia as, whether the parents leave the door open while they are in the bathroom, run around the house naked or half naked, or blush when something sexy comes on TV,” Strasburg says. “This is all education, and kids are little sponges that soak it all up.”