One of the critical challenges facing young people today is developing a healthy understanding of their sexuality. The U. S. Surgeon General (2001) has underscored the importance of this task as one of the nation's leading public health concerns. Knowledge about sexually related matters that is gained in formative years builds the foundation for beliefs and attitudes about sex that can influence each individual's life-long pattern of sexual behavior.
Parents, peers, and schools play a central role in the sexual socialization process. Yet the mass media, and particularly television, are another important element likely to contribute to young people's sexual development (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2001). Adolescence is a time of great change. As they go through physical, emotional, cognitive, moral, and social transformations, adolescents face many developmental tasks, including establishing their own sexual identity and managing their early romantic and sexual relationships (Arnett, 1995). Considering its role as a central source of information on the topic (Sutton, Brown, Wilson, & Klein, 2002), television is an important agent helping adolescents deal with these tasks. Indeed, some have labeled the media a sexual "super-peer" because of its role in establishing sexual norms and expectations for young people (Brown, Halpern, & L'Engle, 2005, p. 421). Many teens report that television is an important source of information for them about birth control, contraception, and pregnancy prevention (Sutton et al.); about ideas for how to talk to their boyfriend or girlfriend about sexual issues (Kaiser Family Foundation, 1996); and about sexual and romantic scripts and norms for sexual behavior (Brown, Childers, & Waszak, 1990).
Television's treatment of sexual content in recent years has grown increasingly frequent and prominent, raising societal concerns in an area when decisions about sexual behavior inevitably involve public health issues. Each year in the United States, one of every four sexually active teens is diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease (Institute of Medicine, 1997). Approximately 19 million STD infections are diagnosed annually, with nearly half of them affecting teens and young adults 15-24 years of age (Weinstock, Berman, & Cates, 2004). In addition, the rates of unplanned pregnancies in the United States, though down slightly since the early 1990s, are still among the highest of all industrialized countries (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 2004), driven by the fact that one-third (34%) of young women become pregnant at least once before reaching their 20th birthday (National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2004).
Television's Effects on Adolescent Sexual Socialization
Given these statistics, and the fact that young people spend more time with television than any other medium (Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout, 2005), it is hardly surprising that television's influence on sexual socialization is a topic of interest among researchers and policy makers. Over the last couple of decades, there has been a significant advancement of knowledge about the effects of sexual content presented in mainstream entertainment television on adolescents.
Research has shown that exposure to sexual content on television is related to an increase in learning and comprehension of sexual information (Greenberg et al., 1993; Silverman-Watkins & Sprafkin, 1983). Recently, an episode of the television show Friends in which condom failure was addressed was found to result in significant increases in knowledge about condoms for 17% of a nationally representative sample of 12-17-year-olds who saw the episode (Collins, Elliott, Berry, Kanouse, & Hunter, 2003). Moreover, 10% of adolescent viewers of the episode reported talking with an adult about condom efficacy as a result of watching the episode.
Importantly, exposure to sexual content on television has been found to positively relate to the endorsement of more recreational attitudes toward sex (Ward & Rivadeneyra, 1999) and more liberal sexual attitudes (Calfin, Carroll, & Shmidt, 1993). …