Poll: How much influence does television have on the sexual behaviors of teens? [December 2007]
December 13, 2007 - On average, adolescents watch three hours of television each day, much of which displays sexual content. According to a recent study conducted by the Rand Corporation, this sexual content—which includes images of sexual behaviors, discussions of sex, or sexual decisions—plays a significant role, both negative and positive, in influencing a young person’s sexual behavior and decisions about sex.
Of the 1,100 television shows reviewed in the Rand study, 70 percent included some form of sexual content—68 percent of these included talk about sex and 35 percent displayed sexual behaviors.  Of the shows that displayed sexual content among teenage characters, only 23 percent made any reference to sexual risk and responsibilities (e.g., condom use, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HIV, etc.).
The study found that teenagers who watch television programs with sexual content are more likely to engage in sex at an earlier age. Indeed, teenagers who were exposed to the most sexual content were twice as likely to initiate sexual intercourse within the next year as those who saw the least amount of sexual content. Furthermore, the study found that discussion of sex had the same effect on teenagers as images of sexual behaviors. Based on these findings, television content can have a significant impact on rates of teenage pregnancy and STIs, including HIV.
Despite the negative impact television can have on teenage sexual health, programs that feature topics on sexual risk reduction and safer sex can also serve as a useful educational tool among teenagers. In fact, the study suggests that television shows that incorporated sexual risk and responsibilities into their storylines were likely to help delay sexual debut among African-American youth.
The impact of television on adolescent behavior, decision making, and sexual health are found to be both positive and negative, depending on the content of the program. Considering the findings of the Rand study, it may be important as a parent or guardian to screen your child’s television viewing or talk with your child about sexual risk and responsibility.
Collins, Rebecca L., “Sex on Television and Its Impact on American Youth: Background and Results from the RAND Television and Adolescent Sexuality Study,” Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 2005. 14: 371-385.
Kaiser Family Foundation, Sex on TV 4, Executive Summary, 2005. Available at: http://www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/Sex-on-TV-4-Executive-Summary.pdf.
Rand Corporation, Does Watching Sex on Television Influence Teens’ Sexual Activity? 2004. Available at: http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9068/index1.html.