STATS ARTICLES 2006

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Is TV Sex Turning Teens On Too Early?
February 01, 2006
Maia Szalavitz
The New York Times thinks it has the answer

The New York Times is hyping fears about teen sex again, this time in relation to a review of the research conducted for the government, which attempted to look at the connection between teen sexual activity and exposure to explicit media.

Unfortunately, the Times article implies that the research suggests that exposure to explicit content increases sexual behavior, saying that if it were to “hazard a guess based on clear evidence that media representations influence teenage eating, smoking and drinking habits, adolescents are almost certainly affected — negatively — by sexual references and images.”

Many would argue—as we have here—that the evidence suggesting causal links between media exposure and those factors are not so “clear.”

One main reason is that the studies done in this area are rarely experimental: they most often simply look at teens’ reported media exposure and correlate it with their accounts of their behavior. Describing one survey, the Times said:

“[It] showed that watching TV with sexual content artificially aged the children: those who watched more than average behaved sexually as though they were 9 to 17 months older and watched only average amounts. Twelve-year-olds who watched the most behaved sexually like 14- and 15-year-olds who watched the least.”

But couldn’t the causal connection go the other direction? Teens who experience early puberty, for example, may be both more likely to be interested in sexual content and to become sexually active earlier. Or, children of parents who don’t supervise the amount and content of their media exposure may be more likely to get in trouble in general? One certainly cannot conclude from a survey that TV “aged” these children in any way!

The article also noted that teen sexual activity has declined in recent years—while saying that sexual content on TV “is pervasive and increasing.” This alone suggests that TV may not be a very important factor.

Further, the piece quoted from an article that accompanied the publication of the review in the journal Pediatrics: “Many parents and some physicians underestimate the negative and lifelong impact of early sexual activity.”

But again, what’s the cause and what is the effect? Certainly, to take another example, we know that children who are sexually abused by adults are more likely to become sexually active with their peers at younger ages.

If the author of the article means that sexual abuse is bad for kids, there’s little doubt about that. But if he means that kids who have sex early with peers are damaged by it, isn’t he missing the point if the reason that they have sex early is because they have previously been sexually abused?

This is a very complex subject and it is done little justice—just like the debate over the impact of TV violence—when causation and correlation are not carefully discussed.