In last summer's prize-winning R-rated film "Me and You and Everyone We Know," a barely pubescent boy is seduced into oral sex by two girls perhaps a year older, and his 6-year-old brother logs on to a pornographic chat room and solicits a grown woman with instant messages about "poop."
Is this what your teenage children are watching? If so, what message are they getting about sexual mores, and what effect will it have on their behavior?
The journal Pediatrics addressed the topic last July in a supplemental report, "Impact of the Media on Adolescent Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors." It is an important and, sad to say, much neglected subject. The report, based on a thorough review of scientific literature, was requested by Congress and supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
A Neglected Subject Pursued
I'll start with the bottom line: "Although a great deal is known about the effects of mass media on other adolescent behaviors, such as eating, smoking and drinking, we know basically nothing about the effects of mass media on adolescent sexual behaviors," the report's principal investigator, S. Liliana Escobar-Chaves of the university's Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research, concluded.
But to hazard a guess based on clear evidence that media representations influence teenage eating, smoking and drinking habits, adolescents are almost certainly affected — negatively — by sexual references and images from television, in movies and video games, in music, in magazines and on Web sites.
Who's monitoring what teenagers see, read and hear about sex? For the most part, no one. "There is growing concern that youth are accessing media in environments isolated from the supervision or guidance of parents or other adults," the report says. "The average American youth spends one-third of each day with various forms of mass media, mostly without parental oversight."
Despite the advent of V-chips, movie ratings and televised warnings of appropriateness for young people, American teenagers have no trouble getting access to graphic sexual presentations. And no one restricts what they hear in popular songs. The effect of abstinence-only education pales by comparison with the many graphic messages that portray sexual activity — especially unprotected sex outside of marriage — to be a part of our culture as normal and acceptable as eating a Big Mac or drinking a Coke.
The proportion of high school students who say they have had sex has declined some and the rate of teenage pregnancies has dropped, but the numbers remain staggering. The report states: "Approximately 47 percent of high school students have had sexual intercourse. Of these, 7.4 percent report having sex before the age of 13, and 14 percent have had four or more sexual partners."
Each year, nearly 900,000 teenage girls in the United States become pregnant (340,000 are 17 or younger). The rates of sexually transmitted diseases are higher among teenagers than among adults, and 35 percent of girls have been pregnant at least once by age 20. In 2002, chlamydia infections were six times as prevalent among sexually active adolescent girls as they were among sexually active women.
The risks don't end with pregnancy and disease. "Data suggest that sexually active adolescents are at high risk for depression and suicide," the report states. "Early sexual experience among adolescents has also been associated with other potentially health-endangering behaviors, such as alcohol, marijuana, and other drug use."
In an accompanying article, Dr. Joe S. McIlhaney Jr. of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health in Austin, Tex., wrote, "Many parents and some physicians underestimate the negative and lifelong impact of early sexual activity." The main report said that, in hindsight, many sexually active teenage girls wished they had waited longer.
Exposure Is Widespread
Television is the best-studied medium, and the average teenager watches it for more than three hours a day. Two-thirds of youngsters 8 to 18 have TV's in their bedrooms, and two-thirds live in homes with cable TV, providing unsupervised access to sex talk and scenes.
The sexual content of TV is pervasive and increasing. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that "the shows most watched by adolescents in 2001-2002 had 'unusually high' amounts of sexual content compared with TV as a whole: 83 percent of programs popular with teens had sexual content, and 20 percent contained explicit or implicit intercourse."
"On average," it continued, "each hour of programming popular with teens had 6.7 scenes that included sexual topics."
The foundation study found that "characters involved in sexual behavior in TV programs rarely experience any negative consequences."
What little is known about the effects of television sex on teenage attitudes and behavior comes primarily from a national telephone survey conducted twice, in 2001 and again in 2002, among 1,792 youths ages 12 to 17.
Growing Up Faster
The survey showed that watching TV with sexual content artificially aged the children: those who watched more than average behaved sexually as though they were 9 to 17 months older and watched only average amounts. Twelve-year-olds who watched the most behaved sexually like 14- and 15-year-olds who watched the least.
The research indicated that adolescents who watched shows with sexual content tended to overestimate the frequency of certain sexual behaviors and to have more permissive attitudes toward premarital sex.
As for movies, two studies that analyzed the content of top movie videos rented by young people revealed a large amount of sexual content, mostly sex among unmarried partners.
The effects of such viewing have been minimally studied. In a 2001 study of sexually active black girls ages 14 to 18, those who were exposed to X-rated movies were more likely to have multiple sexual partners, to have sex more often, to test positively for chlamydia and to be less likely to use contraception.
The music videos aimed at teenagers are rife with sexuality or eroticism, much of it explicit, the report noted. But the effects of this exposure have yet to be studied. Likewise, nothing of a scientific nature is known about the effects of magazines, advertising or video or computer games on adolescents' attitudes and behavior toward sex.
As for the Internet, one national survey of 10- to-17-year-olds found that one in five had "inadvertently encountered explicit sexual content, and one in five had been exposed to an unwanted sexual solicitation while online."
The report called for better studies to assess the effects of sexuality in the mass media on adolescent beliefs and behavior, especially studies that measure over time how the cumulative effects of sexual content in different media affect teenage sexuality.