The media made me have sex

A new study links early intercourse for teens to exposure to media sex messages

By Sarah Elizabeth Richards
April 4, 2006 8:06PM (UTC)
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Is the media to blame for teenage sexual promiscuity? A new study thinks so. It found that sexually themed music, magazines, TV and movies influence kids to have sex at an earlier age.

Researchers studied more than 1,000 teenagers ages 12 to 14 and then followed up with them two years later to find out how media messages had impacted their sex lives. Though it's not clear how they monitored everything the kids read, heard or watched in the meantime, the study found that white teens who had the most media exposure were 2.2 times more likely to have had intercourse by ages 14 to 16 than those who were more sheltered. (The same finding didn't hold for black teens, who were more experienced from the start, said the study.)


"This is the first time we've shown that the more kids are exposed to sex in media the earlier they have sex," Jane Brown of the University of North Carolina, chief author of the report, told Reuters.

The study theorizes that the media gives adolescents the impression that everyone is having lots of sex. "[Teens] may begin to believe the world view portrayed and may begin to adopt the media's social norms as their own. Some, especially those who have fewer alternative sources of sexual norms, such as parents or friends, may use the media as a kind of sexual superpeer that encourages them to be sexually active," explains the report, which was published in the April issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The media is certainly a powerful influence when you're young. For years, I thought everyone kissed the way they did on "Love Boat." But later, I remember being able to separate out what everyone on TV was doing compared with what my friends were actually doing. Surely, whether your best friend is getting any action is more influential than whether Meadow Soprano is. Aren't today's kids drawing those distinctions?


The new study is confusing because recent stats by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the percentage of students who have had intercourse dropped from 54 to 47 percent from 1991 to 2003. And teen pregnancies have also fallen. The media hasn't become any more puritan in the meantime. Maybe kids are getting better at tuning it out?

Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at

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