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Study First to Link TV Sex To Real Teen Pregnancies
Fifty-eight girls reported getting pregnant and 33 boys reported being responsible for getting a girl pregnant during the study period. The increased risk emerged regardless of whether teens watched only one or two shows that were explicit or surfed many shows that had occasional sexual content, Chandra said.
"It could be a child wasn't watching that much TV per week but was watching shows that got a pretty high rating on sexual content, or it could be a kid who was watching a lot of hours but on average was getting just moderate amounts of sexual content from each show," Chandra said.
Among the shows the teens watched were "Sex and the City," "Friends" and "That '70s Show." Chandra would not identify the others but stressed that they included dramas, comedies, reality shows and even animated programs on broadcast and cable networks.
"We don't want to single out any individual programs," Chandra said.
The researchers recommended that parents spend more time monitoring what their children watch and discussing what they see, including pointing out the possible negative consequences of early sexual activity. Programmers should also include more-realistic portrayals of the risks of sex, such as sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, the researchers said.
"Unfortunately, that continues to be relatively rare compared to the portrayals of the positive aspects," Chandra said.
Critics of television programming and experts on teen pregnancy said the research provided powerful new evidence about the role of TV in youth behavior.
"This is very significant," said Melissa Henson of the Parents Television Council, a watchdog group. "It gives us plenty of reason for concern."
Kelleen Kaye of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy praised the study but stressed that the causes of teen pregnancy are complex.
"We need to be cautious about overreaching in our expectations about the role the media can play in our effort to prevent teen pregnancy," she said. "We don't want to assume this is the whole story."
Several experts questioned whether the study had established a causal relationship.
"It may be the kids who have an interest in sex watch shows with sexual content," said Laura Lindberg of the Guttmacher Institute. "I'm concerned this makes it seem like if we just shut off the TV we'd dramatically reduce the teen pregnancy rate."
Chandra acknowledged that other factors might play a role but said the findings are compelling because the researchers were able to track the teens over time and found such a striking relationship.
"The magnitude of the association we did see was very strong," she said.