RESULTS. Exposure to sexual content on television predicted teen pregnancy, with adjustment for all covariates. (Me: in plain English, this means they took into account other known risk factors for teen pregnancy.) Teens who were exposed to high levels of television sexual content (90th percentile) were twice as likely to experience a pregnancy in the subsequent 3 years, compared with those with lower levels of exposure (10th percentile).
CONCLUSIONS. This is the first study to demonstrate a prospective link between exposure to sexual content on television and the experience of a pregnancy before the age of 20. Limiting adolescent exposure to the sexual content on television and balancing portrayals of sex in the media with information about possible negative consequences might reduce the risk of teen pregnancy. Parents may be able to mitigate the influence of this sexual content by viewing with their children and discussing these depictions of sex.
This article is significant because it indicates that the media is having a negative and independent influence on the behavior of teens. It actually points to a new direction, beyond all the arguments over the proper form of sex ed in the schools. The fact that the WAPO reporter on this story, Rob Stein, even uncovered the study and talked about it at all, is a good and wholesome thing. On the day before an election, I fear the story will not get the attention it deserves.
Not surprisingly, however, the Washington Post article on this story interviewed all the usual suspects on the teen pregnancy issue. They said all the usual things:
“We have a highly sexualized culture that glamorizes sex,” said Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association. “We really need to encourage schools to make abstinence-centered programs a priority.”
and then, right on cue:
“This finding underscores the importance of evidence-based sex education that helps young people delay sex and use prevention when they become sexually active,” said James Wagoner of Advocates for Youth. “The absolutely last thing we should do in response is bury our heads in the sand and promote failed abstinence-only programs.”
Naturally, the Alan Guttmacher Institute,the research arm of Planned Parenthood, gets the last word:
"It may be the kids who have an interest in sex watch shows with sexual content,” said Laura Lindberg of the Guttmacher Institute. “I'm concerned this makes it seem like if we just shut off the TV, we'd dramatically reduce the teen pregnancy rate.”
It would be a real service to the public for them to know that sex ed is only one of many indicators of teen pregnancy. Proponents of delayed sexual activity need to take a close look at influences besides the schools. And it would be a service if the media itself, in this case, the print media, would expand its horizons.