Teens’ Exposure to Media and Sex

One of the common critiques about the prevalence of sexual images in the media is that some people believe that it encourages causes teens to have sex earlier. However, Science Daily reports that a new study shows that a more accurate analysis suggests otherwise.

Several peer-reviewed & published studies (i.e. real science rather than opinion columns or blog posts) have shown a link between early exposure to sex in the media and having sex earlier. Many people have jumped to the conclusion that the media causes teens to have sex, despite the fact that correlation is not causation.

Temple psychologist Laurence Steinberg went back to a 2006 study that claimed that teens between 12 and 14 who consumed a large amount of sexualized media — including movies, television, music and magazines — were more likely to have sex by age 16 and reevaluated the data. What was left out of their analysis is that kids make choices about what media they will watch, read or listen to. It’s not as if every teenager is exposed to the exact same stuff- they make choices based on personal taste and interest, as well as marketing, peer pressure and other factors.

When Steinberg controlled for teens’ different tendencies to be exposed to sexualized media by factoring in other aspects of their lives (such as school performance, religiousness, parental relationships, and perceptions of friends’ attitudes about sex), the link between exposure to media and having sex earlier disappeared. So what happens is that teens with more of an interest in sex will seek sexual media, rather than media causing teens to have sex.

This is why we need to approach these questions with an open mind and use the tools that actually tell us what’s going on, rather than letting confirmation bias and the rush to publicize research take over. And none of this implies that there aren’t real problems that result from the constant stream of sexual imagery in the media. There are plenty. But it does mean that we can’t claim that when teens first have sex is necessarily one of them.

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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