Popular TV shows among teens — like reruns of Sex And The City and Friends — are full of flirting, kissing and scenes laced with sexual innuendo.
A new study in the November issue of the journal Pediatrics suggests that sexually active teens who watch a lot of these types of programs are about twice as likely as those who don't to get pregnant or get a partner pregnant.
Researchers from RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization, interviewed 2,003 boys and girls, aged 12 to 17 years old, by telephone between 2001 and 2004. The researchers asked specific questions about television viewing habits, including how often they watched more than 20 popular TV shows that were found to contain lots of sexual or suggestive content.
Of the 718 boys and girls who said they were sexually active, 58 girls reported becoming pregnant over the course of the study. And 33 boys reported that they had gotten a girl pregnant during this period. Those who were in the 90th percentile, in terms of the amount of exposure they had to sexually explicit shows, were nearly twice as likely as those in the 10th percentile to have gotten pregnant — or gotten someone else pregnant.
Anita Chandra, a behavioral scientist at RAND and lead author of the study, says exposure to sex on TV may help create the perception that there is little risk to engaging in sex without the use of contraceptives.
"The amount of sexual content on television has doubled in recent years, and there is little representation of safer sex practices in those portrayals," Chandra says.
The findings suggest that TV watching is strongly connected with teen pregnancy even when other factors are considered, including whether students make good grades, or differences in parents' education level.
Still, the authors say the study has limitations — that they can't rule out other factors that may influence the findings. For instance, it's possible that teens with advanced sexual attitudes are more likely to seek out more TV shows with sexual content.
Previous studies have shown a relationship between sexually transmitted diseases and watching music videos. And earlier findings also suggest that kids who are exposed to sexual content on television may become sexually active at a younger age than their peers who watch less. But this is the first study to demonstrate an association between viewing habits and teen pregnancy.
"There's good methodology in this study," says Elizabeth Schroeder, executive director of the Center for Applied Psychology at Rutgers University, who was not involved in the study. "But the decision to become sexually active, or to become a teen parent, is a lot more complicated than just watching (sex on) television."
"It can't be that media is exclusive cause," she says.
Schroeder advises that parents "step in and talk with [their] kids about what they're seeing on TV." She says they should use television viewing as an opportunity for sex education.