Does sexy TV lead to teen pregnancy?

Gossipgirl_lIn the spirit of that recent Gossip Girl (pictured) ad campaign that cited all those moralists’ complaints about the show’s risqué content, maybe the show will start touting a recent study that suggests that sexy TV shows lead to real-life teen pregnancy. According to Reuters, this RAND study claims a link between exposure to sexual content on TV (broadcast and cable) and unprotected sex among teens. Those teens in the 10 percent of the test pool that watched the TV series with the most sexual content (among those 23 series RAND was monitoring) were at twice the risk for pregnancy as the teens in the bottom 10 percent of those shows’ viewers.

Setting aside all the usual caveats about methodology and statistics, this smells fishy to me. For one thing, as my colleague Mike Bruno points out, correlation is not causation. It’s not clear, at least from the Reuters summary of the study, that the researchers are even suggesting that TV influences these kids to engage in risky sexual behavior; it could be that the kids who most have sex on the brain (because they’re having it) are the ones most inclined to watch such programming as a result. Moreover, as the Reuters article notes, teen pregnancy rates have been on the decline since 1991. Yet TV has undoubtedly gotten sexier, or at least more frank and casual in discussing sex, especially shows that cater to teens. Shouldn’t we be seeing a rise in teen pregnancies, then?

One thing that does seem anecdotally true is that TV offers kids mixed messages about sex. (Sex is HOTTT, but don’t have it until you’re married, after which, it’s NOTTT. Premarital sex can lead to disease and pregnancy, although few characters ever seem to face such consequences. Safe sex means wearing a condom, although no one on TV ever seems to put one on. Losing your virginity is a big deal, even though TV characters tend to describe their first times as humiliating and underwhelming.) Not sure what conclusions anyone could draw, whether teens or researchers, from watching today’s confused, sexually blunt TV.

More on teens and sexy TV:
The ‘racy’ new Gossip Girl ads
New Gossip Girl promos: ‘OMFG’ or ‘Meh’?
Where Gossip Girl‘s Nate-and-Jenny liplock rates among TV’s most nauseating smooches
Gossip Girl: Four rumors and the reality
90210: Schoolyard sex too much for TV’s ‘family hour’?
Why politicians have stopped trying to clean up TV
Episode recaps of The Secret Life of the American Teenager

Comments (84 total) Add your comment
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  • Elizabeth

    No TV doesn’t cause pregnancy, inspite of Tracy Jordan’s threats to take us behind the middle school and get us pregnant.

  • Vicky

    Maybe this RAND study should also get the IQ’s of their subjects. Or maybe…
    Is there a way to test commmon sense.
    Teenagers who have unprotected sex are idiots. I know not everyone can afford birth control, but god damn, at least use a condom. You don’t learn that from TV.

  • Josh

    I watch tv. I see teens having sex on tv. I don’t impregnate teens. I don’t see it as a problem. Teens have sex. Shocker!

  • Anonymous

    Was there any consideration in the study of whether these kids had ever even learned about safe sex? Some kids are too stupid to use condomns, sure, but some have parents and teachers who are too stupid to TEACH them to use condomns. It’s not the responsibility of TV to raise children – it’s there to entertain, which it does quite well.

  • dma69

    No, it’s not sexy TV that leads to teen pregnancy. I’ve seen my share and I never got pregnant. The cause of teen pregnancy is because teens can’t be bothered using birth control or have no clue how to do so. It don’t cost much to get a condom and it’s not hard to use IF YOU DO IT PROPERLY.

  • Teebird

    There have been several experimental studies demonstrating the causal influence that media messages have on children and adolescents. This has been shown not just in the area of risky sexual behaviors but also substance use initiation and obesity. However, there are many other very important influences on children’s and adolescents’ behaviors including parents and peer groups.
    I would be shocked if the researchers who conducted the RAND study did not do a more than adequate job discussing the many alternate hypotheses regarding why adolescents have sex.
    The problem here is that too many people in our society choose to rely on a second hand regurgitation of research by news outlets instead of reading the original source.

  • Anna

    If you click through the link you’d see that the researchers aren’t claiming that it causes teen pregnancy, just that it is predictive factor. Chandra explicitly says it is not causal in her statement. But just because you watch sexy TV and didn’t get pregnant doesn’t mean there if no impact. Social Learning theory is a well substantiated theory in the field and points to the influence of what people see int he social environment on learning.

  • Amy

    I don’t know whether the causal link in this study has any validity or not but I do think that any teen that has sex because they saw it on TV is pretty dumb. And they probably have dumb parents too.
    My parents were always open and honest about sex when I was teen, they never treated it as a taboo topic never to be discussed. I didn’t get pregnant when I was a teen, I didn’t even have sex for the first time until my early 20s. Parents can do a lot more to curb teen pregnancy but I guess they’re afraid if they talk about it then their teens will do it. Flawed logic as far as I’m concerned.

  • Jeffrey

    The issue isn’t whether sexy TV actually causes teen pregnancy, or whether violent TV causes violence. It’s whether TV influences people. So does it? Well, advertisements are on television due to the belief that they will influence your buying habits. And the same networks that air those ads deny that the content of their shows has any bad influence on viewers, as if we have a magical switch in our heads that automatically turns on when commercials start (INFLUENCE ME!) and off when they end. Well, we can’t delude ourselves. Media images saturate our psyches and will influence us. At the very least teens will make this totally unconscious connection: adults allow all this sex on TV, ergo it is not all bad, ergo they don’t totally disapprove me doing it, leads to some pregnant teens that might otherwise not have been.

  • Stephanie T.

    This is why sex education should be a manditory class in High School. Sure high schools have a health and hygene class, but a seperate course on sex education like those taught in colleges and universities would give teenagers a serious wake up call. Plus parents of pre-teens should sit and watch these shows with them and then ask questions.
    Anyway, from what I have seen on tv lately, it’s not as bad as it was in the early nineties when MTV showed videos with women in suspender bikinis and fake boobs. They had similar women when they had their spring break specials.

  • Xena

    No, watching sexy TV doesn’t cause teens to get pregnant. That’s like saying that watching SpongeBob causes people to go jellyfishing. It’s just a load of bunk.

  • Gary R.

    I DO believe sexy TV encourages sex. The teens on shows like Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, 90210 and such are all sexually free. Let’s face it – the picture-perfect scenarios in these shows entice kids. The people on the CW are hot, and, no surprise, their sex hotter. No, no kid’s gonna call up their significant other and say “Hey, let’s do it like they do it on Gossip Girl.” But, it does make a imprint, however faint, on the conscience of kids that, hey, sex might be OK. TV makes it look good, and (normally) without consequences.

  • EinCT

    You’re an idiot if you think sex on tv, movies and music doesnt increase sexual activity in kids/teens. Kids are having sex younger and younger every year, more often and more casually. Open your eyes people! Lets remember that no-pregnancy doesnt mean no-sex…just means they are smarter and wear protection the proper way more often.

  • Xena

    EinCT, nice of you to call people idiots. Do you behave this way to your family and people at work? Aslo, do you have any scientific proof to back up these claims of yours?

  • Dillon

    this is the excuse Bristol Palin used…

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