ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand. Teenagers who watch a lot of TV with sexual content are twice as likely to have sex as their peers who don't watch a lot. That is the conclusion of a study by the RAND Corporation, a conservative think tank, and it's published in the journal Pediatrics.
Our medical expert, Dr. Sydney Spiesel, is a pediatrician, and he's here now with his reaction to the study. Now, the study says teens who watch the most TV - and it points out the average is three hours a day, so the most is more than three hours a day - that they were twice as likely to be sexually active. How was that conclusion reached?
Dr. SYDNEY SPIESEL (Pediatrician, School of Medicine; Yale University): Well, first of all, people, who are apparently tougher than I am, sat and watched a lot of shows, and they scored these shows for how much exposure to sex one would have if you watched the shows. And the exposure to sex meant, you know, scenes of flirtation, passionate kissing, intimate touching, even intercourse, either implied intercourse or even shown intercourse, and talk about sex. And so, the shows were being scored as being - as having high sexual content or low sexual content.
And they'd picked out, I think, 23 shows that teens likely watched, and they then took up a large set of teenagers and got some sense - and this is, by the way, a great weakness of the - they just asked the kids, what do they watch. And then, they tried to correlate what the kids watched, the sexiness, the total sex content of what they watched with the likelihood or unlikelihood of their getting pregnant.
And indeed, they found that the kids who at least said they watched a lot more television that had sexual content, those kids were, in fact, twice as likely - the kids at the extremes at each end were twice as likely as the kids who watched relatively little, very little stuff with sexual content.
BRAND: Well, the, I guess, the obvious question I have with that is, how do you prove causation with that. Couldn't there be a whole host of other factors that would lead teens to be more sexually active, not necessarily watching too much TV?
Dr. SPIESEL: Only about a million.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. SPIESEL: Sure. It's a great weakness in the study. And, in fact, my take on it is that the authors had a kind of an agenda that they wanted to support. And so, they keep hinting more strongly than you even see - most papers are sort of cagey. Most medical papers are cagey about whether something is just an association or a causation. And they hint a lot that they think that the issue is causation, and I doubt it myself.
I mean, it's true that, based on their study, that frequent exposure predicts early pregnancy, but, in terms of causation, we don't know. I mean, maybe sexier TV preference follows a generally stronger interest in sex.
BRAND: You mean it would be the other way around?
Dr. SPIESEL: Sure. I think it's equally probable that kids who are having either unprotected sex or more sex, they may just enjoy sex more on TV. Or the other thing they might enjoy is more sophisticated programming.
BRAND: Well, let me play the devil's advocate with you for a moment and just ask, why wouldn't it be the case? I mean, everybody knows that television is greatly influential. Images, TV images are very influential, and teens are very influence-ible. So, why not? Why wouldn't that be a correlation?
Dr. SPIESEL: Well, it might be. And I suppose that one could do further research that would demonstrate it one way or the other. Although, you know, you're already beginning with some assumptions. One assumption is that teens are very influenced by what they see on TV, and the other is that they're very influence-ible, and maybe they are. But none of those things have been entirely demonstrated, and they've certainly not been demonstrated around this particular issue yet.
The way we think is that, if we see one event following another, we are inclined to believe that the following event is caused by the former event. And that's a terrible prejudice which is very difficult to get over, and it's certainly difficult to get over in terms of understanding scientific research, including often by scientific researchers.
BRAND: Well, thanks, Syd.
Dr. SPIESEL: Thank you.
BRAND: That's Dr. Sydney Spiesel. He's a pediatrician and a professor at Yale Medical School. And we've been talking about a new RAND Corporation study that says teens who watch a lot of TV are more likely to be sexually active.
CHADWICK: And you can find that full study at npr.org.