MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris. The TV show "Gossip Girl" may have a lot to answer for. A recent study provided some striking numbers about teens who watch an exceptional amount of TV with sexual content, shows such as "Gossip Girl." The study found that those teens are twice as likely to get pregnant or get somebody else pregnant as teens who mainly watch other stuff on television. NPR's Kim Masters reports now on the influence of sexual TV.
KIM MASTERS: "Gossip Girl" is probably the most notorious of the shows that involve steamy teenage sex. The show tracks privileged high schoolers from Manhattan's Upper East Side.
(Soundbite of TV show "Gossip Girl")
Mr. ED WESTWICK: (As Chuck Bass) Have sex with me.
Ms. LEIGHTON MEESTER: (As Blair Waldorf) What?
Mr. WESTWICK: (As Chuck Bass) Just once. It's all I need.
Ms. MEESTER: (As Blair Waldorf) You are disgusting, and I hate you.
Mr. WESTWICK: (As Chuck Bass) Then why are you still holding my hand?
MASTERS: But "Gossip Girl" is hardly the only show dealing in teenage lust. "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," on the ABC Family Channel, is built around a pregnancy that resulted from one brief encounter.
(Soundbite of TV show "The Secret Life of the American Teenager")
Unidentified Woman #1: Ricky does not have friends. Ricky makes friends with girls he wants to have sex with.
Ms. SHAILENE WOODELY: (As Amy Juergens) Ricky and I are just friends, and he's not going to try to have sex with me.
MASTERS: We decided to ask an actual high school student whether television shows really affect the behavior of the American teenager.
Ms. AMANDA KRZEPICKI (High School Student, Ashburn, Virginia): For me, it just really doesn't do anything. It's just entertaining to watch.
MASTERS: 15-year-old Amanda Krzepicki of Ashburn, Virginia, watches "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" with friends. She doesn't think the show affects teen behavior, but it might affect attitudes.
Ms. KRZEPICKI: Because every girl in the show - they either have a boyfriend, they're having, like, relations with some guy, they've currently had a boyfriend, or they really, really want a boyfriend.
Mr. JOSH SCHWARTZ (Co-creator, "Gossip Girl"): I think teenagers were having sex and getting pregnant long before "Gossip Girl," long before "The O.C.," long before "90210," and long before there was even television.
MASTERS: That's Josh Schwartz, one of the creators of "Gossip Girl." When the RAND study came out last month, many media reports specifically cited "Gossip Girl" as a show linked to teen pregnancy. In fact, the show didn't exist when the research was conducted. And Schwartz and his partner, Stephanie Savage, say some elements of the program are obviously based in fantasy. Even so, Savage says, "Gossip Girl" routinely shows that behavior has consequences.
Ms. STEPHANIE SAVAGE (Writer, "Gossip Girl"): The consequences may not happen in the same episode as the activity. It feels like, 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.
MASTERS: Savage says the most dramatic repercussion in the show so far came when wealthy, spoiled Blair slept with two different guys and had a pregnancy scare.
Ms. SAVAGE: This really brought her to the bottom. She was dethroned as the queen bee. She had a long journey back sort of into the good graces of her world.
(Soundbite of TV show "Gossip Girl")
Unidentified Woman #2: Blair, given you can barely manage your own messy affair, surely you're not in a position to tell anyone where they can and can't eat.
Ms. MEESTER: (As Blair Waldorf) Do you realize who you're talking to?
Unidentified Woman #3: You mean, a self-righteous (beep) who sat on her own high horse judging everyone else?
Unidentified Woman #2: Pregnant little hypocrite.
MASTERS: 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. When a couple hooks up, they will sleep together. And you just think that's the way the world is?
Mr. SCHWARTZ: We make a big deal out of that. But we certainly create a sense of this being a significant moment in these character's lives and not something that they just kind of do out in haste.
MASTERS: So when you see that study, do you say, oh, my God, did we get teenagers pregnant? Or do you say, that's silly, or what's the reaction?
Ms. SAVAGE: Certainly, they've identified a correlation between these two things, but there's no causal effect that even they are saying. They're not saying that watching television causes pregnancy.
MASTERS: But "Gossip Girl" doesn't deserve to be singled out for outrage, according to Rebecca Collins, one of the authors of the RAND study. She says shows like "Gossip Girl" and "Secret Life of the American Teenager" may seem to be the obvious culprits, but they're not necessarily the worst offenders.
Ms. REBECCA COLLINS (Author, RAND Study): The place where you see the most sexual content, at least of the type that we looked at in our study, is in television sitcoms, the place where you might not actually be looking for it.
MASTERS: Sitcoms may not show that much sex, but they talk about it - a lot.
(Soundbite of sitcom)
Unidentified Man: You got the wrong idea. There's something you don't know about me.
Unidentified Woman #4: You're gay?
Unidentified Man: No.
Unidentified Woman #4: You're a cross-dresser?
Unidentified Man: No.
Unidentified Woman #4: Because, you know, I could really get into that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man: Yes.
MASTERS: 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. And he says there hasn't been that much study of how teenagers use entertainment.
Mr. MICHAEL MALES (Senior Researcher, Youthfacts.org): 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.
MASTERS: "Gossip Girl" creators Schwartz and Savage think that's clearly the case. The only thing they're not quite comfortable with are "Gossip Girl's" provocative ads, which promote the show as every parent's worst nightmare.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: I think they're funny. 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 nightmare, you're like, ah man, does that mean my own parents think I'm a nightmare?
MASTERS: A son who's successful in Hollywood? For a lot of parents, that's even more of a fantasy than anything you'd see on "Gossip Girl." Kim Masters, NPR News.
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