Background. Early sexual initiation is an important social and health issue. A recent survey suggested that most sexually experienced teens wish they had waited longer to have intercourse; other data indicate that unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases are more common among those who begin sexual activity earlier. The American Academy of Pediatrics has suggested that portrayals of sex on entertainment television (TV) may contribute to precocious adolescent sex. Approximately two-thirds of TV programs contain sexual content. However, empirical data examining the relationships between exposure to sex on TV and adolescent sexual behaviors are rare and inadequate for addressing the issue of causal effects.
Design and Participants. We conducted a national longitudinal survey of 1792 adolescents, 12 to 17 years of age. In baseline and 1-year follow-up interviews, participants reported their TV viewing habits and sexual experience and responded to measures of more than a dozen factors known to be associated with adolescent sexual initiation. TV viewing data were combined with the results of a scientific analysis of TV sexual content to derive measures of exposure to sexual content, depictions of sexual risks or safety, and depictions of sexual behavior (versus talk about sex but no behavior).
Outcome Measures. Initiation of intercourse and advancement in noncoital sexual activity level, during a 1-year period.
Results. Multivariate regression analysis indicated that adolescents who viewed more sexual content at baseline were more likely to initiate intercourse and progress to more advanced noncoital sexual activities during the subsequent year, controlling for respondent characteristics that might otherwise explain these relationships. The size of the adjusted intercourse effect was such that youths in the 90th percentile of TV sex viewing had a predicted probability of intercourse initiation that was approximately double that of youths in the 10th percentile, for all ages studied. Exposure to TV that included only talk about sex was associated with the same risks as exposure to TV that depicted sexual behavior. African American youths who watched more depictions of sexual risks or safety were less likely to initiate intercourse in the subsequent year.
Conclusions. Watching sex on TV predicts and may hasten adolescent sexual initiation. Reducing the amount of sexual content in entertainment programming, reducing adolescent exposure to this content, or increasing references to and depictions of possible negative consequences of sexual activity could appreciably delay the initiation of coital and noncoital activities. Alternatively, parents may be able to reduce the effects of sexual content by watching TV with their teenaged children and discussing their own beliefs about sex and the behaviors portrayed. Pediatricians should encourage these family discussions.