A joint study by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Children Now reported that young teens ranked entertainment media as their top source for information regarding sexuality and sexual health, meaning that media outranks parents, peers and mentors as the primary sexual education for kids today.[i]  This is exacerbated by the sharp increase in media usage among teens.  A recent report revealed that the average child spends more 75 hours a week consuming entertainment media – the equivalent of nearly two full-time jobs.[ii] 

Unfortunately, with absentee parents and kids’ easy access to all types of media, our sons and daughters are the recipients of a vast amount of sexually suggestive content.

From an anecdotal perspective, I think that most of us know that what we take in (i.e. listen to, watch, read) can have an impact on our behaviors.  Well, new research analyzed the sexual content of hundreds of top-grossing movies released between 1998 and 2004, and then asked more than 1, 200 kids, aged 12 to 14, which of the movies they had seen.  Six years later, the participants were surveyed to find out how old they were when they became sexually active and whether they engaged in risky sexual behaviors, such as not using condoms and having multiple sexual partners. 

As reported:

Teens who were exposed to more sexual content in movies started having sex at younger ages, had more sex partners and were less likely to use condoms with casual sex partners, according to the study authors. n an attempt to determine how sex scenes in movies can affect teens’ sexual behavior, the researchers focused on a personality trait called sensation-seeking. This trait, which peaks between the ages of 10 and 15, refers to a tendency to seek new and intense forms of stimulation.

The study, which is scheduled for publication in the journal Psychological Science, found that greater exposure to sexual content in movies at a young age led to a higher peak of sensation-seeking in adolescents. Among kids who are exposed to sex scenes in movies, sensation-seeking sexual behavior can last well into the late teens and even into the early 20s, the investigators found. 

“These movies appear to fundamentally influence their personality through changes in sensation-seeking, which has far-reaching implications for all of their risk-taking behaviors,” Ross O’Hara, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Missouri, said in a news release from the Association for Psychological Science.

As parents, it’s critical that we understand that we really need to be vigilant with regard to what our kids take in via their media diet.  Set clear rules for what is and what isn’t appropriate.  Read about and review (even watch) the shows and movies that your son or daughter wants to watch to determine whether they are appropriate.  Watch out for teachable moments throughout the day to talk about healthy sexuality.  Talk with other parents as well to let them know about your standards and what your son or daughter is allowed to see.  Also recognize that even at younger ages, kids can be significantly influenced by what they see.  I talk with so many parents who allow their5-8 year old kids to be around as they watch ‘R’ rated movies because they think that the content goes “over their heads”; but in reality, your kids are paying attention and learning from you and from what you allow them to see.

[i] Kaiser Family Foundation and Children Now.  (2001).  Talking with kids about tough issues: A national survey of parents and kids. Retrieved from http://www.kff.org/mediapartnerships/upload/Talking-With-Kids-About-Tough-Issues-A-National-Survey-of-Parents-and-Kids-Chart-Pack-2.pdf>.

[ii] 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation Study: Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-year-olds.