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Sexy TV Shows, Violent Video Games Linked to Teen Sex, Aggression

Steamy TV shows are linked to teen pregnancy and violent video games are linked to aggression and hostility in kids.  These are the findings of two longitudinal studies both released today in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.


Both studies are a wakeup call, not only for parents who too often use the “electronic babysitter,” but also for the producers of the content who like to pretend that what they call “entertainment” is harmless fun. 


Both studies were reported in the November 3 edition of The Washington Post, with the study on sexy TV shows being linked to teen pregnancy making the front page.  That study was also talked about on NBC's Today and the Early Show on CBS.


The lede in the Washington Post story on TV sex sums up the study's findings.


Teenagers who watch a lot of television featuring flirting, necking, discussion of sex and sex scenes are much more likely than their peers to get pregnant or get a partner pregnant, according to the first study to directly link steamy programming to teen pregnancy.


In addition to reporting on the study itself, reporter Rob Stein also chose to include the debate about sex education in his story, but did a balanced job by presenting spokespeople for both abstinence education and comprehensive sex ed.


…the new research is the first to show an association between TV watching and pregnancy among teens.


The study did not examine how different approaches to sex education factor into the effects of TV viewing on sexual behavior and pregnancy rates. Proponents of comprehensive sex education as well as programs that focus on abstinence said the findings illustrate the need to educate children better about the risks of sex and about how to protect themselves, although they disagree about which approach works best.


"We have a highly sexualized culture that glamorizes sex," said Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association. "We really need to encourage schools to make abstinence-centered programs a priority."


But others said there is no evidence that abstinence-centered programs work.


"This finding underscores the importance of evidence-based sex education that helps young people delay sex and use prevention when they become sexually active," said James Wagoner of Advocates for Youth. "The absolutely last thing we should do in response is bury our heads in the sand and promote failed abstinence-only programs."

In reporting on the study's findings both the Post and Today also discussed the failure of TV programming to address negative consequences of sexual activity.


From the Post:

The researchers recommended that parents spend more time monitoring what their children watch and discussing what they see, including pointing out the possible negative consequences of early sexual activity. Programmers should also include more realistic portrayals of the risks of sex, such as sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, the researchers said.


From Today:

Dr. NANCY SNYDERMAN:  …(TV) isn't showing the random aspect of what happens if --


MEREDITH VIEIRA (host): None of the consequences are ever shown.


SNYDERMAN: You don't see condoms. You don't see kids getting pregnant. So, the reality is, there's this sort of implied it's going to be okay. But what happens with risky behavior, that hasn't been addressed.


Snyderman also blasted the broadcast industry's reliance on the parental control known as the V-chip, which is supposed to block shows that are inappropriate for children.  While the Parents Television Council has published research that shows the V-chip is largely ineffective, Snyderman also noted the V-chip screens for explicit content but much of what is aimed at kids is innuendo. She further stated that explicit content is rampant on cable programming and the internet.  Many shows are now viewed online rather on television.


Over on the Early Show host Julie Chen noted that “the media does have an impact on what kids do (but) it's not the only factor to consider.”  She said one criticism of the study was that it didn't address other issues such as self-esteem, family and income.  The Post's story on the study included similar criticism from the liberal Guttmacher Institute and National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.  Washington Post reporter Stein ended his story, however, with study author Anita Chandra noting that, while “other factors might play a role,” the findings of the study are “compelling because the researchers were able to track the teens over time and found such a striking relationship.”


It's not surprising that Today and the Early Show chose to highlight the study focusing on TV sex and teens, but they should have also reported on another equally important study on the impact of violent video games which was also published in the same medical journal.


Like the study on TV shows and teen pregnancy, it is the longitudinal nature of study that also makes the report on violent video games compelling.  The research shows a that children and teens “who play violent video games show increased physical aggression months afterward” including an “increased likelihood of getting into a fight at school or being identified by a teacher or peer as being physically aggressive.”  The behaviors showed up five to six months after playing the games, according to the research.


Unlike previous findings, this latest research included studies on children and teenagers in both America and Japan.  The inclusion of the Japanese research is important because video games are extremely popular there, and aggression is less prevalent.  The lower rate of crime and aggression in Japanese culture has been a prevailing counter-argument in previous studies looking at the impact of violent video games.


The Post's Donna St. George noted the significance of the cross-cultural nature of the research:


Yet the studies produced similar findings in both countries, Anderson said. "When you find consistent effects across two very different cultures, you're looking at a pretty powerful phenomenon," he said. "One can no longer claim this is somehow a uniquely American phenomenon. This is a general phenomenon that occurs across cultures."


St. George rightly reported that context is important when reviewing the findings and quoted the study's author Craig A. Anderson, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University:

Although the longitudinal studies reported in Anderson's study showed that frequent playing of violent video games leads to greater aggression, Anderson also said this message should be understood in the larger context of a child's life.

"A healthy, normal, nonviolent child or adolescent who has no other risk factors for high aggression or violence is not going to become a school shooter simply because they play five hours or 10 hours a week of these violent video games," he said.

However, St. George also noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics “now recognizes violence in the media as a significant health risk to children and adolescents” and reported that the group is in the process of revising its recommendations on media violence and expects to issue a new statement on the topic in the next four to six months.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.