They may seem innocent, TV shows like “Everyone Loves Raymond,” “Two and a Half Men” and “Friends.”
According to new research from Children’s Hospital Boston, however, they can have very, very, unwanted consequences: Namely, children having sex at a younger age.
According to the study, 6- to 8-year-old children who watch prime-time, network television shows with adult content are more likely to have sex when they’re 12 to 14 years old than 6- to 8-year-olds who do not see those shows.
“It looks like parents don’t think there is any danger in a sitcom,” says David Bickman, a staff scientist at the hospital’s Center on Media and Child Health and co-author of the study, which was presented at a medical conference in Baltimore last month. “But the outcome is not benign behavior. Their kids are having sex at a really young age.”
The study consisted of 754 participants (365 males and 389 females) who were tracked twice, first when they were 6 to 8 years old, and again when they were 12 to 14 years old.
At both stages, the amount and type of television they watched was recorded. During the second stage, the study also tracked the onset of sexual activity for the participants.
The study found that for every hour the youngest group of children watched adult-targeted content (which also included movies, reality shows and sports — anything that aired during prime-time viewing hours, 8 to 11 p.m.) over two sample days, their chances of having sex during early adolescence increased by 33 percent.
“What’s important here is that you don’t have to be watching a sexual scene for this impact. It can be innuendo, situation, suggestion,” says Dr. Hernan Delgado, a pediatrician and co-author of the study.
“Media is a source of information about sex and relationships for children. But they don’t have the brain development or the life experience to understand what they’re seeing,” he says. “They need someone — an adult — to clear up misconceptions.”
Otherwise, they will, while unable to differentiate between reality and fiction, fill in the blanks themselves and make conclusions, often erroneous, about adult life.
Similar studies have been conducted on media violence and its effects on children. The results were similar: Watching media violence as a young child likely will make you more violent than someone who didn’t watch media violence as a young child, according to extensive research done by University of Michigan psychology professor Rowell Huesmann and others.
“We’re not saying that if they watch sitcoms they’re going to have sex at 12. It’s more complicated than that,” Mr. Bickman says. “But it should be on your radar screen.”
Being on the radar screen also should include an open dialogue about adult television and adult interactions. Not only do kids need clarification and guidance, but they also need to know what their family’s values are.
“They get such conflicting information,” Mr. Bickman says.
For example, often it seems as if sex is the only thing people talk about on television, and yet children hear they should be abstinent until they marry. It just doesn’t add up, to put it mildly.
“If you don’t talk to your kids about your values, they will get it from somewhere else,” Mr. Bickman says.
Parents also should make clear what the rules are on media exposure in the home. Make it clear and stick to it, Dr. Delgado says.
“You need to set up a media environment in the home and tell the child that no matter how other families do it, ‘This is how television works in our home,’” Dr. Delgado says.
In the end, it looks as if tapped-out, modern-day parents have yet another task: to not only be present, but also be involved whenever your elementary school-age child watches television.
“It may seem overwhelming for parents, but it’s worth the effort,” Mr. Bickman says.
Guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics on media exposure for children:
• No television in children’s bedrooms.
• No more than one to two hours of screen time (this includes computer games) per day.
• Choose what young children watch.
• Whenever possible, watch television programs with your children and have an open dialogue about the content.