Tuning in to Teenagers: We Need to Study the Impact of Hollywood on Kids' Sexual Behavior, Even If It Is Controversial

By Strasburger, Victor C. | Newsweek, May 19, 1997 | Go to article overview

Tuning in to Teenagers: We Need to Study the Impact of Hollywood on Kids' Sexual Behavior, Even If It Is Controversial


Strasburger, Victor C., Newsweek


We need to study the impact of Hollywood on kids' sexual behavior, even if it is controversial

LIKE THE WEATHER, EVERYONE TALKS ABOUT TEENAGE sex, but no one seems able to do anything about it. One million pregnant teens a year? Hey, just say no. Several million sexually transmitted diseases a year? Let teens go to a Planned Parenthood clinic somewhere (as long as it hasn't been bombed out by pro-life extremists). HIV infection and AIDS? That's what sex-education classes in school are supposed to deal with (even though many aren't even allowed to mention condoms).

Foolishly, my colleague Dr. Diane Furno-Lamude and I decided to try to make a difference by studying the influence of the entertainment industry on teens' sexual behavior. Three years later, all we know is how narrow-minded many school administrators and officials are and how little they want to know about the health and welfare of their students.

Here's what we knew when we started. Teenagers watch an average of three hours of TV per day, listen to the radio for an additional one to two hours and often have access to R-rated movies and even pornography long before they are adults. According to the best study from the late 1980s, the average American teenager views almost 15,000 sexual jokes, innuendoes and other references on TV each year. Fewer than 170 of these deal with what any sane adult would define as responsible sexual behavior --self-control, birth control, abstinence, the risk of STDs, pregnancy and HIV. Add to that the 20,000 commercials per year each teenager in America sees-with implicit messages that sex is fun, sex is sexy and everyone out there is having sex but you--and you have at least the possibility of a fairly important influence.

Given the voluminous amount of research implicating media violence as one cause of real-life violence, we wanted to see whether a similar connection existed between inappropriate sexual depictions in the media and inappropriate adolescent sexual behavior. Not surprisingly, we found only four studies that even attempted to focus on this issue, compared with more than 1,000 studies on media violence. All of the sexuality studies were done in the 1980s; all were small and relatively flawed. None was designed to test a cause-and-effect hypothesis. Off we went, naive as little bunnies.

First we carefully designed a questionnaire that asked teens about every medium they would ordinarily come into contact with-television, movies, radio, print magazines, the Internet, you name it. Next, we adapted many questions from the Centers for Disease Control's Youth Risk Behavior Survey that asked teens not just about their sexual activity but their drug history and their tendencies toward violence-all so-called risk-taking behaviors that, in teens, tend to go together. Finally, we added some questions about sexual knowledge and attitudes: simple things like when is a female most likely to become pregnant, and should only married people have sex? …

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Tuning in to Teenagers: We Need to Study the Impact of Hollywood on Kids' Sexual Behavior, Even If It Is Controversial
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