Early sexual activity may be related to the amount of explicit media that teens had been exposed to as young children, says research from The Children’s Hospital Boston. The longitudinal study, which followed children aged six to 18, found that the younger children are when exposed to sexual content, the earlier they engage in sexual behavior during adolescence.
The study examined the television and film viewing habits of 754 participants, 365 males and 389 females, first during childhood and again five years later when their ages ranged from 12- to 18-years old. After carefully logging their program choices, participants’ ages at their first sexual activities were recorded.
Results showed that when the youngest children in the sample, aged six to eight years, were exposed to adult-oriented television and movies, they were more likely to engage in sex earlier than their peers who had watched less adult-targeted media.
For every hour that a child watched adult-targeted film or television over the two sample days recorded in the study, the likelihood of having sex during early adolescence increased by about one-third. However, the reverse—that adolescents having sex watched more sexually-oriented media—did not occur.
What inspired the research team to examine the relationship between childhood media exposure and subsequent sexual behavior?
“There is considerable evidence that exposure to sexual media is related to sexual behavior. Very little of this, however, explores how exposure at a young age could be linked to adolescent sexual behaviors,” says David S. Bickham, Ph.D., co-author of the study and staff scientist at the Center on Media and Child Health http://www.CMCH.tv, Children’s Hospital Boston.
“Additionally, there was little investigation into the direction of the effect over time: Does viewing adult material come before sex, or does earlier sexual activity predict later interest in adult media?” he adds.
Lead author of the study Hernan Delgado, MD, explained in a public statement that the media tends to be the primary source of information about sexuality and relationships for adolescents. “Our research shows that their sexual attitudes and expectations are influenced much earlier in life,” he said publicly.
Bickham notes that the most unexpected finding was related to the large gap between the age of the audience that actually views the content and the age of the targeted audience.
“Our research suggests that we need to be most concerned about adult content when the age difference between the viewers and the intended audience is the largest,” he tells demo dirt. “When children are young, between 6 and 8, they have a less developed understanding of sexuality and relationships.”
With so little understanding, he explains, children of this age are particularly sensitive to media messages about adult behavior. “As children in this age group see media representations of adult interactions, their beliefs about sexual relationships may be shaped in a way that encourages earlier sexual behaviors,” Bickham contends. “The importance of this age for exposure makes theoretical sense, but we did not specifically hypothesize that it would be the source of our findings.”
Bickham says that the study did not discover any evidence of physical changes—such as early puberty—that exposure to sexual images could have children. “It’s an interesting proposal, but I haven’t seen any theoretical model that would predict this effect,” he says.
Are kids who are more interested in sex to start with more likely to watch adult-oriented media, while their less curious cohorts may shy away from such shows and films? Is there a chicken-or-egg issue at play?
“We address the issue of direction of effect in this study,” Bickham explains. “We found a relationship between time 1 viewing of adult TV content (for six- to eight-year olds) and time 2 sexual behavior (six years later); but there was no relationship between sexual behavior reported at time 2 and adult TV viewing at time 2. Our results, therefore, indicated that the viewing occurred before the sexual behavior.”
However, interest in sex may still play a role, although the media may reinforce and drive that curiosity. “It is still possible that a third influence was at play; a general interest in sex could lead young people toward viewing adult TV and experimenting with sex at a younger age,” Bickham says. “Given what we know about the influence of media on our beliefs about sex, any early interest in sex would likely be reinforced by viewing adult television. Therefore, television exposure can still play a role in earlier sexual behaviors even if an interest in sexual content drives initial exposure to adult media.”
Bickham says that despite the study results and the well-known role of sexuality in our media, the public should not misinterpret the findings.
“It is important to recognize that this study does not prove that viewing adult TV causes young people to have sex—there are many variables that contribute to that decision and opportunity,” he explains. “What it does do, especially when considered with other evidence in this area, is provide evidence that early exposure to adult TV can play a role in shaping a young person’s beliefs about sex. It is these beliefs that drive later behaviors. It is important to study this relationship more directly by learning what specific beliefs arise when fairly young children see media that are meant for older people.”
Future research will explore the role of parents in formation of beliefs regarding appropriate sexual behavior; one limitation of this study, Bickham notes, was the difficulty in accounting for parental input. Parental guidance, he says, is “critical” in belief formation.
“More research is necessary to see how parents’ beliefs about sex and media information may interact to influence young people’s beliefs in this area,” he says.
He would also like to examine the effects of parental co-viewing may influence the effects of adult-targeted media on children. “The six- to eight-year olds in this study may not have chosen to watch these shows, they may have simply been watching what their parents picked to view,” he explains. “Permissiveness of parents to allow their young children to view adult content could play a big role in the relationships we describe.”
However, if parents watch shows and films with their children and discuss the events depicted, perhaps there will be a favorable effect on how children form their beliefs about sexuality and relationships, Bickham adds.
“Parents might be able to watch adult shows with their young children and use events in the programs as teaching moments to explain their own beliefs about sexuality and relationships,” he states. “This would likely reduce the impact of the media and increase the impact of the parents.”
Besides sexuality, there are other controversial themes that parents may want to be aware of when monitoring their children’s viewing habits, Delgado added in a public statement. “Adolescent sexual behaviors may be influenced at a younger age, but this is just one area we studied,” he said publicly. “We showed how adult media impacts children into adolescence, yet there are a number of other themes in adult television shows and movies, like violence and language, whose influence also needs to be tracked from childhood to adolescence.”