Media and American adolescent sexuality

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The media and American adolescent sexuality relates to the effect the media has on the sexuality of American adolescents, and the portrayal thereof.

According to Sexual Teens, Sexual Media: Investigating Media's Influence on Adolescent Sexuality, adolescence can be divided into three different stages; early (ages 8–13 years), middle(ages 13–16 for girls, 14-17 for boys) and late (16 and older for girls, 17 and older for boys). Each stage focuses on different aspects of cognitive, physical, social and psychological development. Although not all teens develop through adolescence at the same rate the stages usually follow a specific pattern. For a teen in the early stages of adolescence they are in the beginning stages of puberty. In this stage of adolescence, relationships begin to become important as well as their physical appearance. Middle adolescence is characaterized by independence from their family and increased activity with their peers. This is the stage where sexual activity may begin to occur. The last stage of adolescence the teenager begins to feel more secure in their bodies and their sexual behavior. With these aspects of adolescence in mind, media can play an important role in how teen shape their views about sexuality.[1]

Researchers remain divided on the role of sexuality in the media on adolescent sexual health. The American Academy of Pediatrics has argued that media representations of sexuality may influence teen sexual behavior.[2] However some scholars have argued that such claims have been premature.[3] Despite increasing amounts of sexual media US Government statistic state that teens have delayed the onset of sexual intercourse in recent years.[4] According to journalism professor and media critic Jane Brown, the media is piquing teen interest in sex at ages younger than previous.[5] Dr. Brown argues that research has "found a direct relationship between the amount of sexual content children see and their level of sexual activity or their intentions to have sex in the future."[5][6] However, the direction (and mechanism) of causality remains unclear.

Sexuality in the media[edit]

Some scholars argue that American media is the most sexually suggestive in the world.[7] According to this view, the sexual messages contained in film, television, and music are becoming more explicit in dialog, lyrics, and behavior. In addition, these messages may contain unrealistic, inaccurate, and misleading information. Some scholars argue that still developing teens may be particularly vulnerable to media effects.[8] A 2001 report found that teens rank the media second only to school sex education programs as a leading source of information about sex,[2] but a 2004 report found that "the media far outranked parents or schools as the source of information about birth control."[7]

Media often portray emotional side-effects of sexuality such as guilt, and disappointment, but less often physical risks such as pregnancy or STDs.[9] One media analysis found that sex was usually between unmarried couples and examples of using condoms or other contraception were "extremely rare."[6] Many of programs or films do not depict consequence for sexual behavior. For example, only 10% programs that contain sexual scenes include any warnings to the potential risks or responsibilities of having sex such as sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy.[10] In television programing aimed at teens, more than 90% of episodes had at least one sexual reference in it with an average of 7.9 references per hour.[11]

However, government statistics suggest that since 1991, both teen sex and teen pregnancy have declined dramatically despite the media generally becoming increasingly sexually explicit.[12]

Effects of the media on beliefs about sex[edit]

Some scholars feel that adolescents may turn to the media as a "sexual super peer" when seeking information about sexual norms and adult roles given the lack of information about sexuality readily available to them.[6] For example, in one study of 13-and 14-year-olds, heavy exposure to sexually oriented television also increased acceptance of non-marital sex.[10] Another study found that teens overestimate how many of their peers are sexually active, a problem contributed to by the media.[13]

Another study found that middle-school-aged boys who watch music videos or pro-wrestling one day a week are 10% more likely to have a higher acceptance rate for rape than boys who do not watch any.[citation needed] Boys who watch music videos four days a week and pro wrestling 1.7 days a week (the mean exposure rate for boys) have 70% higher odds of endorsing a greater level of rape acceptance.[14] "Both music videos and pro wrestling shows are popular with youth, combine violent and sexual content, and glorify individuals who behave violently."[14]

Effects of the media on sexual behavior[edit]


Some researchers have found a correlation between the amount of television with high sexual content that teenagers watch and an increased likelihood of them becoming pregnant or fathering a child out of wedlock.[15] Some studies suggest teens exposed to the most sexual content on TV are twice as likely as teens watching less of this material to become pregnant before they reach age 20.[16]

These researchers believe that reducing the amount of sexual content adolescents watch on television could substantially reduce the teen pregnancy rate.[15] "It's a cumulative effect," Brown believes. "It's probably not any one portrayal that makes the difference, but it's a consistent, and now unhealthy, sexual script that adolescents do see as a depiction of appropriate behavior."[17]

Several complementary studies have found that television viewing can influence multiple aspects of reproductive health among youths and that "earlier sexual initiation is associated with negative health outcomes."[15] Previous research has suggested two ways that glamorized perception of sex may contribute to teen pregnancy: by encouraging teens to become sexually active early in their adolescence and by promoting inconsistent use of contraceptives.[16]

Early sexual activity[edit]

Some studies have also found that adolescents whose media diet was rich in sexual content were more than twice as likely as others to have had sex by the time they were 16.[18][19][20] In a Kaiser Family Foundation study, 76 percent of teens said that one reason young people have sex is because TV shows and movies make it seem normal for teens.[10] In addition to higher likelihoods that an adolescent exposed to sexual content in the media will engage in sexual behaviors, they are also have higher levels of intending to have sex in the future and more positive expectations of sex.[21]

Some studies suggest that children who watch adult content on television are more likely to have sex earlier once they reach adolescence.[22][23] For every hour of adult-targeted television or movies watched by children when they were 6 to 8 years old, there was a 33% increased risk of becoming sexually active in early adolescence.

"Children have neither the life experience nor the brain development to fully differentiate between a reality they are moving toward and a fiction meant solely to entertain," explained David Bickham, a staff scientist in the Center on Media and Child Health.[23] "Children learn from the media, and when they watch media with sexual references and innuendos, our research suggests they are more likely to engage in sexual activity earlier in life."[23]

Other research has suggested that linking sexuality in media with adolescent sexual behavior is premature.[3] Steinberg and Monahan reanalyzed a dataset of teen sexual behavior (Collins et al.) using propensity score matching and discovered that with other risk factors controlled, viewing sexual media did not predict early onset of sexual behavior in adolescents. The authors concluded that links between media viewing and adolescent sexuality are more tenuous than previous believed.

Researchers on both sides of the debate acknowledge that assigning causality to correlations between media use and sexual behavior are difficult, given the lack of experimental research, and difficulty controlling for all potential confounding variables.[24]

One study found that the relationship between exposure to sexual contact in the media and increased sexual activity among adolescents is more pronounced in white youths than black youths. Black teens are more likely to be influenced by their friends' sexual experiences and their parents' expectations than by what they see in the media.[25]


Between the 3rd and 10th grades more than 90% of children will be exposed to pornography.[26] Psychiatrist Jerald says access, affordability and anonymity have made online sexual activity "extraordinarily common" among all ages, including adolescents.[26] Adolescents who intentionally seek out pornography, both online and off, are overwhelmingly male.[27] Older youth are more likely than younger youth to seek porn.[27] Individuals who are already at risk of being attracted to sexual aggression are more likely to be influenced by pornographic exposure. This in turn explains that these individuals are more likely to believe in the various unusual sexual behaviors as common causing negative effects towards sexual experiences. However, it is important that once these negative attitudes have been formed, it was not easily reversed by education.[28]


  1. ^ Jane D. Brown; Jeanne R. Steele; Kim Walsh-Childers (2002). Sexual Teens, Sexual Media: Investigating Media's Influence on Adolescent Sexuality. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p. 2. 
  2. ^ a b American Academy Of Pediatrics. Committee On Public Education, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (January 2001). "Sexuality, Contraception, and the Media". Pediatrics 107 (1): 191–1994. doi:10.1542/peds.107.1.191. PMID 11134460. 
  3. ^ a b Steinberg, L., & Monahan, K. 2010. Developmental Psychology.
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b Jane Brown, Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of North Carolina (2004). "Friends with Benefits" (Windows Media). National Public Radio. Retrieved 2008-04-15. 
  6. ^ a b c Sam Jones (March 22, 2006). "Media 'influence' adolescent sex". The Guardian (London). 
  7. ^ a b Victor C. Strasburger, MD (2005). "Adolescents, Sex, and the Media: Ooooo, Baby, Baby – a Q & A". Adolesc Med 16 (2): 269–288. doi:10.1016/j.admecli.2005.02.009. PMID 16111618. 
  8. ^ Gruber, Enid; Grube, Joel (March 2000). "Adolescent Sexuality and the Media". Western Journal of Medicine. 3 172: 210–214. doi:10.1136/ewjm.172.3.210. 
  9. ^ Roberts, Henriksen, & Foehr (2009). "Adolescence,adolescents, and media". Handbook of Adolescent Sexuality (3rd edition) 2: 314–344. doi:10.1002/9780470479193.adlpsy002010. 
  10. ^ a b c "Media Literacy". University of Washington. Retrieved 2012-03-07. 
  11. ^ Jennifer Stevens Aubrey (2004). "Sex and Punishment: An Examination of Sexual Consequences and the Sexual Double Standard in Teen Programming". Sex Roles 50 (7–8): 505–514. doi:10.1023/B:SERS.0000023070.87195.07. 
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  13. ^ S. Liliana Escobar-Chaves, DrPH, Susan R. Tortolero, Christine M. Markham, Barbara J. Low, DrPH, Patricia Eitel and Patricia Thickstun (2005). "Impact of the Media on Adolescent Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors". Pediatrics 116 (1): 303–326. doi:10.1542/peds.2004-2541. PMID 16001458. 
  14. ^ a b Christine E. Kaestle, Carolyn T. Halpern, William C. Miller and Carol A. Ford (2005). "Young Age at First Sexual Intercourse and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Adolescents and Young Adults". American Journal of Epidemiology 161 (8): 774–780. doi:10.1093/aje/kwi095. PMID 15800270. 
  15. ^ a b c Anita Chandra, DrPH, Steven C. Martino, Rebecca L. Collins, Marc N. Elliott, Sandra H. Berry, MA, David E. Kanouse and Angela Miu, MS (November 2008). "Does Watching Sex on Television Predict Teen Pregnancy? Findings From a National Longitudinal Survey of Youth". Pediatrics 122 (5): 107–1054. 
  16. ^ a b Park, Alice. “Sex on TV Increases Teen Pregnancy, says Report.” Time Magazine. [1]
  17. ^ Greg Toppo (2008-11-03). "Study is first to link TV sex to teen parenthood". USA Today. Retrieved 2008-11-05. 
  18. ^ Luscombe, Belinda (2008-09-11). "The Truth About Teen Girls". Time. 
  19. ^ Belinda Luscombe (2008-09-11). "The Truth About Teen Girls". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2012-03-07. 
  20. ^ Collins, R. L., Elliott, M. N., Berry, S. H., Kanouse, D. E., Kunkel, D., Hunter, S. B., & Miu, A. (2004). "Watching sex on television predicts adolescent initiation of sexual behavior". Pediatrics 114: e280-e289. doi:10.1542/peds.2003-1065-l. 
  21. ^ Fisher, D.A.; Hill, D.L.; Grube, J.W.; Bersamin, M.M.; Walker, S.; and Gruber, E.L. "Televised sexual content and parental mediation: Influences on adolescent sexuality", November 10, 2006.
  22. ^ "Teen sex linked to early adult TV content". UPI. May 9, 2009. Retrieved 2009-05-17. 
  23. ^ a b c Robert Preidt (2009-05-07). "Study links viewing adult-themed TV to earlier sex in teens". USA Today. Retrieved 2009-07-12. 
  24. ^ Steinberg & Monahan (2011). "Premature Dissemination of Advice Undermines Our Credibility as Scientists : Reply to Brown (2011) and to Collins, Martino, and Elliott (2011)". Developmental Psychology 47: 582–584. doi:10.1037/a0022562. 
  25. ^ Jane D. Brown, MA, Kelly Ladin L'Engle, MPH, Carol J. Pardun, MA, Guang Guo, Kristin Kenneavy, MA and Christine Jackson, MA (2006). "Sexy Media Matter: Exposure to Sexual Content in Music, Movies, Television, and Magazines Predicts Black and White Adolescents' Sexual Behavior". Pediatrics 117 (4): 1018–1027. doi:10.1542/peds.2005-1406. PMID 16585295. 
  26. ^ a b Julie Sullivan (December 17, 2008). "Teens' use of online porn can lead to addiction". The Oregonian. Retrieved 2008-12-28. 
  27. ^ a b Michele Ybarra & Kimberly Mitchell (2005). "Exposure to Internet Pornography among Children and Adolescents" (PDF). Cyber Psychology 8 (5). doi:10.1089/cpb.2005.8.473. 
  28. ^ Malamuth, Neil (October 1993). "Pornography's Impact on Male Adolescent". Adolescent Medicine.