Teens who see and hear a lot about sex in the media may be more than twice as likely to have early sexual intercourse as those who are rarely exposed to sexual content.
A new study shows that 12- to 14-year-olds exposed to the most sexual content in movies, music, magazines, and on television were 2.2 times more likely to have had sexual intercourse when re-interviewed two years later then their peers who had a lighter sexual media diet.
However, the link between sexual content in the media and teen sex was not as significant for black teenagers, whose sexual activity seemed to be more influenced by their parents' expectations and their friends' sexual behavior.
Sexy TV, Sexy Teens?
In the study, published in Pediatrics, researchers surveyed more than 1,000 public middle school students in North Carolina when they were 12 to 14 years old and again two years later when they were 14 to 16 years old.
Researchers measured each teen's sexual media diet by weighting the frequency of exposure to sexual content in four major types of media: TV, movies, music, and magazines. The teens were divided into five equal-sized groups ranging from the lowest exposure to the highest exposure.
The results showed that exposure to sexual content at ages 12-14 increased the risk of early teen sex among white teenagers even after taking into account other factors known to reduce the likelihood of teen sex, such as parental disapproval of teen sex and getting good grades. In fact, each increase in grouping of sexual content media exposure increased the risk of teen sex by 30 percent.
Researchers found that white teens with the highest level of sexual content exposure were 120 percent or 2.2 times more likely to have initiated sexual intercourse than those with the lowest levels of exposure to sexual content in the media.
Among blacks, the relationship between sexual media diet and teen sex was not as clear after adjusting for other risk factors. The sexual activity of black teenagers was more significantly influenced by their parents' attitudes about sex and their friends' sexual behavior than what they saw or heard in the media.
Parents' Attitudes Count
Although the study showed that one of the biggest risk factors for early teen sex was the perception that a teen's friends were having sex, researchers say one of the strongest protective factors was parental attitudes about sex.
Both black and white teenagers were less likely to have sexual intercourse by the time they were 16 if they reported that their parents did not approve of them having sex at this age.
Researchers say the results show that while sexual images in the media may influence teen sex, clear communication about sex between parents and their children can also have a major impact on teen sex.
SOURCES: Brown, J. Pediatrics, April 2006; vol 117: pp 1018-1027. News release, American Academy of Pediatrics.
By Jennifer Warner
Reviewed by Louise Chang, M.D.
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