Adolescent and Parent Perceptions of Media Influence on Adolescent Sexuality

By Werner-Wilson, Ronald Jay; Fitzharris, Jennifer Lynn et al. | Adolescence, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Adolescent and Parent Perceptions of Media Influence on Adolescent Sexuality


Werner-Wilson, Ronald Jay, Fitzharris, Jennifer Lynn, Morrissey, Kathleen M., Adolescence


Adolescents are active consumers of messages broadcast on radio and television, printed in magazines, distributed on the Internet, and presented in video games. As technology has advanced, access to these varying types of media has become common in U.S. households: 98% have at least one television, 70% have more than one television, 70% have cable, and 51% of households with children have a computer (Paik, 2001). Wireless resources such as radio/CD headsets, handheld televisions, portable video game players, and internet access via cellular phones add to the numerous sources of media access. In addition, VCR usage allowing repetitive viewing of movies and access to age-restricted movies must be taken into consideration when studying media access. With each additional source of access, popular media may replace more worthwhile activities (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signoriello, 1986). Further, adolescents appear to be using media in an isolated manner: more adolescents seem to have media available in their private bedrooms (Larson, 1995).

The media passively reinforce gender and ethnic stereotypes (Gerbher, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1986). Passive reinforcement of gender and ethnic stereotypes was demonstrated in a content analysis of Rolling Stone magazine, a popular adolescent periodical, which examined gender and ethnic themes in issues published in the years 1968 and 1988 (Wilson, 1990). Results from the content analysis suggested that women and people from traditionally underrepresented groups were rarely the source of stories; when they were featured, they were depicted unflatteringly.

Both children and adults have been reported to believe the media is a central source of information on sex and sexuality for young people (Malamuth & Impett, 2001) considering few programs (from the daily news, to "reality-based" programs, to talk shows, to family-centered programming) appear immune to stories of a sexual nature. Content analysis has been performed on print media, television and movies, music, and computerized media to determine the types of messages delivered through these sources with results showing adolescents being exposed to both implicit and explicit sexual content (Carpenter, 1998; Durham, 1998; Flowers-Coulson, Kushner, & Bankowski, 2000; Kehily, 1999; Strong & DeVault, 1994; Ward & Wyatt, 1994). While neither prior research nor the general public appear to dispute the sexual content of the media, the perceived influence on adolescents and their sexuality appears to warrant further examination. Few studies examine whether adolescents themselves find the media influential in determining their sexual attitudes, values, and behaviors (Malamuth & Impett, 2001).

Adolescents and Media

Larson (1995) suggested that media usage changes--often becoming more individualistic--as adolescents begin to develop their sense of self. The experiences of adolescents as they develop may impact how media is selected and how influential the messages are. Fine, Mortimer, and Roberts (1990) suggest that the medium adolescents select is different during this life stage in an attempt to gain independence from parents. Depending on their rate of development, some adolescents may succumb to media influences, while others may not. Based on an extensive literature review regarding the influences of sexual content in the media, Malamuth and Impett (2001) state that individual personality factors may also be important, as research suggests that the type of media people select and find gratifying is predictably related to their personalities and other individual differences. Roberts (1993) has also examined adolescents and determined that they vary greatly regarding their development in areas such as identity formation and the development of formal problem solving and moral reasoning. Roberts suggests that not only do these affect the impact media has on adolescents, but so do the individual abilities, interests, social relationships, and short- and long-term needs of the adolescent. …

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