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Study First to Link TV Sex To Real Teen Pregnancies

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008; Page A01

Teenagers who watch a lot of television featuring flirting, necking, discussion of sex and sex scenes are much more likely than their peers to get pregnant or get a partner pregnant, according to the first study to directly link steamy programming to teen pregnancy.

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The study, which tracked more than 700 12-to-17-year-olds for three years, found that those who viewed the most sexual content on TV were about twice as likely to be involved in a pregnancy as those who saw the least.

"Watching this kind of sexual content on television is a powerful factor in increasing the likelihood of a teen pregnancy," said lead researcher Anita Chandra. "We found a strong association." The study is being published today in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

There is rising concern about teen pregnancy rates, which after decades of decline may have started inching up again, fueling an intense debate about what factors are to blame. Although TV viewing is unlikely to entirely explain the possible uptick in teen pregnancies, Chandra and others said, the study provides the first direct evidence that it could be playing a significant role.

"Sexual content on television has doubled in the last few years, especially during the period of our research," said Chandra, a researcher at the nonpartisan Rand Corp.

Studies have found a link between watching television shows with sexual content and becoming sexually active earlier, and between sexually explicit music videos and an increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases. And many studies have shown that TV violence seems to make children more aggressive. But the new research is the first to show an association between TV watching and pregnancy among teens.

The study did not examine how different approaches to sex education factor into the effects of TV viewing on sexual behavior and pregnancy rates. Proponents of comprehensive sex education as well as programs that focus on abstinence said the findings illustrate the need to educate children better about the risks of sex and about how to protect themselves, although they disagree about which approach works best.

"We have a highly sexualized culture that glamorizes sex," said Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association. "We really need to encourage schools to make abstinence-centered programs a priority."

But others said there is no evidence that abstinence-centered programs work.

"This finding underscores the importance of evidence-based sex education that helps young people delay sex and use prevention when they become sexually active," said James Wagoner of Advocates for Youth. "The absolutely last thing we should do in response is bury our heads in the sand and promote failed abstinence-only programs."

Chandra and her colleagues surveyed more than 2,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 three times by telephone from 2001 to 2004 to gather information about a variety of behavioral and demographic factors, including television viewing habits. Based on a detailed analysis of the sexual content of 23 shows in the 2000-2001 TV season, the researchers calculated how often the teens saw characters kissing, touching, having sex, and discussing past or future sexual activity.

Among the 718 youths who reported being sexually active during the study, the likelihood of getting pregnant or getting someone else pregnant increased steadily with the amount of sexual content they watched on TV, the researchers found. About 25 percent of those who watched the most were involved in a pregnancy, compared with about 12 percent of those who watched the least. The researchers took into account other factors such as having only one parent, wanting to have a baby and engaging in other risky behaviors.


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