Consumption of Sexual Dialogue and Content on Television and Adolescent Sexual Outcomes: Multiethnic Findings

By Somers, Cheryl L.; Tynan, Joshua J. | Adolescence, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Consumption of Sexual Dialogue and Content on Television and Adolescent Sexual Outcomes: Multiethnic Findings


Somers, Cheryl L., Tynan, Joshua J., Adolescence


The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported on their website (retrieved March 2005) that annually there are 15 million new cases of STD in the U.S., and 25% of those are among adolescents. Also, despite reduction trends in teen pregnancy, in 2002, 43 per 1,000 adolescent females were still becoming pregnant. The CDC also reported that in 2003, 47% of high school teens were nonvirgins, with 14% of them having had four or more sex partners, and 37% not using a condom during last intercourse (CDC, 2003a). A survey of 1,800 teenagers found that about 75% are very or somewhat concerned about HIV/ AIDS, STDs, and unwanted pregnancy, yet statistics like the following are surprising: 19% did not know that STDs can be spread through oral sex, 60% did not know that STDs can cause some kinds of cancer, 33% did not know that the risk of HIV/AIDS is increased by having STDs, and 24% did not know that STDs can cause infertility (Hoff, Greene, & Davis, 2003). Because risk-taking behavior and lack of knowledge have clear implications for sexual development and health, it is important to know where and how adolescents receive information about sex and which variables best predict their sexual choices.

Media are one way that adolescents receive information about sex, and some literature finds that it has harmful effects. Warren, Gerke, and Kelly (2002) found that parents' patterns of involvement in their children's television exposure can be important mediators of a variety of potential negative effects of television, and their article cites a wealth of literature on that topic. Media have been shown to influence outcomes such as environmental concern and behavior (e.g., Holbert, Kwak, & Shah, 2003), and some of the variance in adolescent sexual outcomes may also be explained by media exposure since it is a way that children are socialized to sexuality (Greenberg, Brown, & Buerkel-Rothfuss, 1993). This was the focus of the current study.

Overall, one-third to one-half of the television shows teens commonly watch contain verbal references to sexual issues (Ward, 1995). In 1990, relative increases in frequency of both sexual references and explicit content on TV were noted (Brown, Childers, & Waszak, 1990). More recent studies have also found an abundance of sexual references in a variety of programming (e.g., Greenberg & Busselle, 1996; Kunkel, Cope, & Biely, 1999; see Brown, 2002, for a review). In a study of college students, Ward and Rivadeneyra (1999) found that more frequent viewing by type of show (e.g., soap operas, comedies, and dramas) indicated more frequent viewing of sexual content. A 2001 report on media content analyses revealed that sexual content on TV has steadily increased and the involvement of young people in sexual activity has also increased (Kunkel, Cope-Farrar, Biely, Farinola, & Donnerstein, 2001).

It is important to note that adolescents are aware of these sexual images, especially negative portrayals of women (Rouner, Slater, & Domenech-Rodriguez, 2003). Using primarily social learning theories as theoretical frameworks, some researchers have studied sexual outcome correlates of sexually oriented TV (e.g., Greeson & Williams, 1987; Ward & Rivadeneyra, 1999). According to Bandura (1977), most human behavior is learned through observation/modeling and imitation. However, Bandura's concept of reciprocal determinism would also suggest a multidirectional nature between the constructs, and in 1994, he wrote specifically about the influences of mass media and a bidirectional relationship. Adolescents who are sexually active (or at least prone to be so) are also more likely to seek out the sexually laden television programming. Similarly, as children and adolescents construct expectations for male and female sexual roles, as proposed in a symbolic interactionism perspective on sexual development (Christopher, 2001), media are likely to be involved in this development and sexual socialization. …

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