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Teens, Sex And TV: A Risky Mix?

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Teens, Sex And TV: A Risky Mix?

Pop Culture

Teens, Sex And TV: A Risky Mix?

Teens, Sex And TV: A Risky Mix?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/97637718/97721937" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Don't try this at home, kids: A new study suggests that teens who watch a lot of sex on TV are more likely to become pregnant or get their partners pregnant. The study has drawn attention to the CW's steamy teen series Gossip Girl. Giovanni Rufino/The CW Network hide caption

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Giovanni Rufino/The CW Network

Cause and effect: The Secret Life of the American Teenager shows what can happen after a fateful one-night stand ... at band camp. ABC Family hide caption

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ABC Family

They grow up so fast: Gossip Girl follows the social and sexual exploits of a group of Upper East Side Manhattan high schoolers. Giovanni Rufino/The CW Network hide caption

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Giovanni Rufino/The CW Network

They grow up so fast: Gossip Girl follows the social and sexual exploits of a group of Upper East Side Manhattan high schoolers.

Giovanni Rufino/The CW Network

A recent study from the RAND Corp. suggests that teens who watch programs that contain a lot of sexual content are twice as likely to be involved in a pregnancy. The study has drawn attention to Gossip Girl, a notorious example of a show that depicts steamy teenage sex.

Gossip Girl tracks privileged high schoolers from Manhattan's Upper East Side who seem to be 17 going on 30, but the CW show is hardly the only program dealing in teen lust; The Secret Life of the American Teenager on the ABC Family Channel is built around a pregnancy that resulted from one brief encounter.

Amanda Krzepicki — a real-life American teenager — watches The Secret Life of the American Teenager with her friends. The 15-year-old from Ashburn, Va., says she doesn't think the show affects teens' behavior, but suspects that it might affect their attitudes.

"Every girl in the show — they either have a boyfriend, they're having, like, relations with some guy ... or they really, really, want a boyfriend," Krzepicki observes.

When the RAND study was released in November, many media reports specifically cited Gossip Girl as an example of a sex-filled show that could be linked to increased rates of teen pregnancy. But in fact, the show didn't exist when the research was conducted.

Josh Schwartz, one of the creators of Gossip Girl, says that teens were having sex and getting pregnant "long before Gossip Girl ... and long before there was even television."

Schwartz and his partner, Stephanie Savage, say some elements of the program are obviously based in fantasy. Savage points out that Gossip Girl routinely shows that behavior has consequences, though not necessarily in the same episode.

"The consequences may not happen in the same episode as the activity," Savage says. "If you're doing activity-consequences in the same episode, that's starting to feel like an after-school special. It's starting to feel very preachy. And honestly, life isn't like that."

Savage cites the most dramatic repercussion in the show so far: wealthy, spoiled Blair sleeps with two different guys and has a pregnancy scare. Her reputation is ruined — at least, temporarily, when schoolmates find out.

Blair may have suffered the wrath of her classmates, but Gossip Girl takes it for granted that teenagers have sex — quite a lot of sex. Schwartz says the show tries to portray sleeping together as a significant moment in the teens' lives.

As for whether the RAND study caused Gossip Girl's creators to question whether they've caused teen pregnancies, Savage says that the study doesn't show that watching TV makes teens pregnant.

"They've identified a correlation between these two things but there's no causal effect," she says.

The RAND study does go a bit further than that, but Rebecca Collins, one of the authors of the study, says Gossip Girl doesn't deserve to be singled out for outrage. She says shows such as Gossip Girl and The Secret Life of the American Teenager may seem to be obvious culprits, but they're not necessarily the worst offenders.

"The place where you see the most sexual content ... is in television sitcoms," Collins says, "the place where you might not actually be looking for it."

She says sitcoms may not show that much sex, but they talk about it a lot.

Not everyone accepts the RAND study's conclusions. Michael Males, a senior researcher for Youthfacts.org, says the main factors that influence teens are the pregnancy-related behavior of adults around them and poverty. He says there hasn't been much research into how teenagers use entertainment to inform their own lives.

"If they consume it merely as a fantasy or as a representation of a world that is very unlike their own — which would be a reasonable assumption — then it's not going to have a lot of effect on their own personal behavior," Makes says.

Schwartz and Savage think that's clearly the case. But, they admit, they're not quite comfortable with Gossip Girl's provocative ads, which promote the show as "Every Parent's Worst Nightmare."

"I think they're funny," Schwartz says. "I think they're clever and I think they're reflective of the tone of the show. But certainly when you drive by a poster that says 'Every Parent's Worst Nightmare,' you're like, ah, man, does that mean my own parents think I'm a nightmare?"

So perhaps the RAND study did create some doubt in the mind of at least one of the Gossip Girl creators after all ...