Tuesday, July 5, 2005

There is more sex in the mass media, and teens are logging more hours of exposure, but little is known about how teens react to such sexual imagery, according to an article in the new issue of the Journal of Pediatrics.

This “gap” in knowledge has major public health implications, wrote study author S. Liliana Escobar-Chaves and her colleagues at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

It’s well-known that the mass media influence teen attitudes and behaviors on issues such as violence, eating disorders, tobacco and alcohol use, she wrote.

But despite the growth of sexual content in the media, very little is known about its effect on teens, she said, noting that out of 2,522 studies on youth and the media conducted from 1983 to 2004, 13 examined sexual issues.

Moreover, Ms. Escobar-Chaves said, the few studies done on teens, sex and the media have focused on TV and movies. Virtually nothing is known about how teens are affected by sexually charged radio commentary, music, magazines, advertising, Internet sites, and video and computer games, she wrote.

This dearth of knowledge is troubling because “adolescents accept, learn from and may emulate behaviors portrayed in media as normative, attractive and without risk,” Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital in Boston/Harvard Medical School, said in a commentary in the journal.

Groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics have lambasted the entertainment media for “irresponsible” and “unrealistic” portrayals of sexual activity, such as allowing unmarried characters to be promiscuous but never get pregnant or catch a sexual disease, he said.

“Every parent and health care provider should be very troubled by these findings,” said Dr. Gary L. Rose, president and chief executive of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health in Austin, Texas, which assisted with the federally funded study.

“Our children are saturated in sexual imagery,” Dr. Rose said, noting that 83 percent of the programming watched most frequently by teens contains sexual content. “Yet, we have never stopped to ask what effect all this sexual content in television, the Internet and music has on young people.”

More than 800,000 teenagers become pregnant each year, and almost 4 million cases of sexual infections are diagnosed in teens yearly.

The Impact of the Media on Adolescent Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors study also found that:

• The average teen spends a third of each day with various forms of mass media, mostly without parental oversight.

• Forty-two percent of songs on 10 top-selling compact discs in 1999 contained sexual content, 41 percent of which was “very explicit” or “pretty explicit.”

• In 1999, 22 percent of teen-oriented radio segments contained sexual content, 20 percent of which was “pretty explicit” or “very explicit.”

• Children ages 9 to 17 use the Internet four days a week and spend almost two hours online at a time.

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