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The Link Between TV, Movies and Teen Sex

May 14, 2009 - Betsy Bethel
Children's Hospital Boston released a study last week that showed early onset of sexual activity among teens may relate to the amount of adult-targeted television they were exposed to as children.

The study tracked the same children from age 6 to 18 and found that "the younger children are exposed to content intended for adults in television and movies, the earlier they become sexually active during adolescence."

This was no small-potatoes study. It had 754 participants, 365 males and 389 females, who were tracked during two stages in life: first during childhood, and again five years later when their ages ranged from 12 to 18, according to CHB.

At each stage, according to a press release, "the television programs and movies viewed, and the amount of time spent watching them over a sample weekday and weekend day were logged. The program titles were used to determine what content was intended for adults. The participants' onset of sexual activity was then tracked during the second stage.

"According to the findings, when the youngest children in the sample — ages 6 to 8 years old — were exposed to adult-targeted television and movies, they were more likely to have sex earlier when compared those who watched less adult-targeted content."

I know many parents who think nothing of letting their 6- to 8-year-olds, not to mention their toddlers and preschoolers, watch adult television and movies and play adult (or at least teen) video games. One family I know allowed their preschoolers to stay up until 10 or 11 p.m. on weekends and watch whatever movies they were watching — almost always rated R.

What I don't think they realize is, kids' brains can't filter what they see. Everything they experience is "burned onto their hard drive" is how one expert put it in an interview with me. They learn quickly and they learn a huge amount in those early years, and most everything sticks.

"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," said David Bickham, staff scientist in the Center on Media and Child Health and co-author of the study. "Children learn from 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."

My rule is to let Emma, who is 3, watch only movies or TV shows that are made for general audiences, rated G. Even the animated G movies, such as "The Lion King," and and "The Little Mermaid" contain frighteningly violent or suspenseful scenes, not to mention passionate kissing and ethnic, age and body-type stereotypes galore. I can tell she's really paying attention to the themes in the "princess" movies — and the books, too — and I'm beginning to wonder if it's time to bring up the fact that she doesn't need to be rescued by a prince in order to live happily ever after.

(By the way, is there such thing anymore as a G-rated animated feature? I wanted to take Emma to her first movie in a theater a couple months ago, and all the animated features were PG! The only one rated G was "High School Musical 3"! Considering I don't want her to be 3 going on 16, I decided to stay home.}

As for television, it's pretty much PBS, Nick Jr. (selectively) or nothing. I even get nervous when my mother-in-law watches "Wheel of Fortune" or "Frasier" re-runs when Emma's around, because of the previews for primetime shows!

The Boston researchers encourage parents to follow current American Academy of Pediatrics viewing guidelines such as no television in the bedroom, no more than one to two hours of screen time a day, and to co-view television programs and have an open dialogue about its content with your children.

If you're interested, one resource I have found helpful is the CommonSense Media Web site. It offers reviews, ratings and talking points for movies, music, video games and books. If you're more than interested and want the latest on what's out there, how it affects your children and how you can get involved, check out the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.


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