Adolescent Sex and Mass Media a Developmental Approach

Article excerpt


Media critics point to adolescents' exposure to "sexy" television and popular music. Developmental transitions lead to increased information seeking, and developmental tasks force adolescents to find information sources other than their parents, implying a link between sexy media and adolescent development. Media research informed by knowledge of adolescent development may be able to clarify this connection, and model development is discussed here.

In a review of articles published in Adolescence, Stefanko (1984) found that the three most prevalent research issues (representing nearly half of all articles) were problem behaviors, sexuality, and values. These studies concluded that adolescents were ill-equipped to face the increasing opportunities for sexual contact, because they lacked sufficient decision-making skills and sources of information. Today, these issues are still salient.


Adolescent Sexuality

Increasingly earlier physical development offers a possible explanation as to why adolescents seem to do things (e.g., engage in sexual activity) at a younger age than their parents. The average age of menarche is currently 12-13 years in the U.S., whereas 150 years ago it took place at age 16 (Hamburg, 1992). Perhaps the most important aspect of this trend is the discrepancy between physical and social development. Put another way, adolescent bodies mature before cognitive development and emotional maturity are far along (Hamburg, 1992). Anne Rice's (1987) fictional Belinda expresses the plight of the American adolescent--physically mature, but legally a child. I had my first period when I was .... I was wearing a C-cut bra by the time I was thirteen. The first boy I ever slept with was shaving every day at fifteen; we could have made babies together....But what is a kid here?...You can't legally smoke, drink, start a career, get married...all this for years and years after you're a physical adult. All you can do is play 'til you're twenty-one.... We're all criminals ... to be an American kid, you have to be a bad person.... Everybody's an outcast. Everybody's a faker. (p. 278)

Health professionals continue to be concerned about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), AIDS in particular, among the adolescent population (Centers for Disease Control, 2000). At the end of 1999, there were over 25,000 cases of HIV infection among Americans between the ages of 20 and 24, and an additional 3,500 cases among those between 13 and 19. People under the age of 25 account for half of the HIV infections in the U.S. (Centers for Disease Control, 2000). Although knowledgeable about the transmission of AIDS and STDs (Chapin, 2000; Fisher & Misovich, 1991), adolescents in general do not take appropriate precautions (Chapin, 2000; DiClemente, 1990). Less than 10% of sexually active adolescents use condoms consistently (Centers for Disease Control, 1998).

The United States has the highest rates of teen pregnancy and births in the Western industrialized world, at a cost of at least $7 billion annually (NCPTP, 1997). More than four out of ten females become pregnant at least once before they reach the age of 20, nearly one million a year. Over 80% of these pregnancies are unplanned and over 80% are to unmarried teens.

Rates of syphilis and gonorrhea are highest for adolescents and decrease exponentially with increasing age (Centers for Disease Control, 2000). Currently, an estimated 15% of adolescents have contracted an STD. Such rates are likely underestimated, because random urine analysis of asymptomatic adolescents has revealed that up to 12% have unknowingly contracted, then spread, a venereal disease (Braverman et al., 1996).

Life Tasks

Adler divided the problems of life into three areas: work, society, and sex (Manaster, 1977), while Newfield (1955) suggested four: sustenance, society, sex, and self. …