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PUBLIC HEALTH & EDUCATION | Study Links Sexual Content on TV With Teen Pregnancy

PUBLIC HEALTH & EDUCATION | Study Links Sexual Content on TV With Teen Pregnancy
[Nov. 3, 2008]

Teenagers who watched the most sexual content on television were about twice as likely to be involved in a pregnancy as teens who watched the least, according to a study published Monday in Pediatrics, the Washington Post reports (Stein, Washington Post, 11/3).

For the study, Anita Chandra, a behavioral scientist at Rand Corporation, and colleagues surveyed by telephone more than 2,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 about their TV viewing habits in 2001. The researchers asked how often the teens watched any of more than 20 TV shows that were popular at the time and had a high amount of sexual content, including "Sex and the City," "That 70's Show" and "Friends." The same teens were asked about pregnancy in two subsequent interviews, the last of which took place in 2004 (Janner, AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 11/3).

Among the 718 youth who reported being sexually active, about 25% who watched the most sexual content were involved in a pregnancy, compared with 12% of those who watched the least (Washington Post, 11/3). During follow-up interviews, 58 young women reported getting pregnant, while 33 young men reported being involved in a pregnancy (AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 11/3). The researchers controlled for parents' race, income and education, as well as for the amount of TV teens watched (Toppo, USA Today, 11/3). The researchers also controlled for living in a single-parent household, wanting to have a baby and engaging in other high-risk behaviors (Washington Post, 11/3). The correlation between watching sexual content on TV and pregnancy remained constant when the other factors were considered, Chandra said (AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 11/3).

The researchers recommended that parents monitor the TV programs their teens watch and discuss the content and point out potential negative consequences of sexual activity. In addition, TV shows should portray the risks associated with sex, such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, more realistically, the researchers said.

Comments, Reaction

The study, which was the first to examine the link between teen pregnancy and TV viewing, provides important evidence about the role of TV in teens' behavior, according to teen pregnancy experts. Kelleen Kaye of the National Campaign To Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, praised the study but said researchers "need to be cautious about overreaching in [their] expectations about the role the media can play in our effort to prevent teen pregnancy" (Washington Post, 11/3).

Jane Brown, a researcher who studies media and adolescent health at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said the findings are not "surprising," adding that sexual content on TV has a "cumulative effect" on teens. "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," Brown said (USA Today, 11/3).

Laura Lindberg of the Guttmacher Institute questioned whether the study established a causal relationship. "It may be the kids who have an interest in sex watch shows with sexual content," Lindberg said, adding, "I'm concerned [the study] makes it seem like if we just shut off the TV we'd dramatically reduce the teen pregnancy rate." Chandra said it is possible other factors contribute to teen pregnancy but that the "magnitude of the association" between watching TV shows with sexual content and pregnancy "was very strong."

Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association said the study emphasizes the "need to encourage schools to make abstinence-centered programs a priority." However, James Wagoner of Advocates for Youth said the study "underscores the importance of evidence-based sex education that helps young people delay sex and use prevention when they become sexually active," adding, "The absolutely last thing we should do in response is bury our heads in the sand and promote failed abstinence-only programs" (Washington Post, 11/3).

~ Washington Post reporters Rob Stein and Anita Chandra on Monday are scheduled to discuss the study in a online chat.