Teens who watch a lot of TV featuring flirting, necking and sex 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.
The study, which tracked more than 700 12-to-17-year-olds for three years, found those who viewed the most sexual content were about twice as likely to be involved in a pregnancy as those who saw the least.
“Watching this kind of sexual content on television is a powerful factor in increasing the likelihood of a teen pregnancy,” said lead researcher Anita Chandra.
The study is being published today in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
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Concern is rising about teen pregnancy rates, which after decades of decline may have started inching up, fueling intense debate on what is to blame. Although TV viewing is unlikely to entirely explain the possible uptick, Chandra and others said, the study offers the first direct evidence it could play a significant role.
“Sexual content on television has doubled in the last few years, especially during the period of our research,” said Chandra, a researcher at the nonpartisan Rand Corp.
Chandra and her colleagues surveyed more than 2,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 three times by phone from 2001 to 2004 to gather information on behavioral and demographic factors, including TV habits. Based on a detailed analysis of the sexual content of 23 shows in the 2000-2001 TV season, researchers calculated how often the teens saw characters kissing, touching, having sex, and discussing past or future sexual activity.
Among the 718 youths who reported being sexually active during the study, the likelihood of getting pregnant or getting someone else pregnant increased steadily with the amount of sexual content they watched on TV, researchers found. About 25 percent of those who watched the most were involved in a pregnancy, compared with about 12 percent of those who watched the least. Researchers took into account other factors, such as having only one parent, wanting to have a baby and other risky behaviors.
Fifty-eight girls reported getting pregnant, and 33 boys reported getting a girl pregnant during the study period.
Among the shows the teens watched were “Sex and the City,” “Friends” and “That '70s Show.”
Researchers recommended parents spend more time monitoring what 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.
“This is very significant,” said Melissa Henson of the Parents Television Council, a watchdog group. “It gives us plenty of reason for concern.”
Kelleen Kaye of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy praised the study but stressed that the causes of teen pregnancy are complex.
Several experts questioned whether the study had established a causal relationship.
“It may be the kids who have an interest in sex watch shows with sexual content,” said Laura Lindberg of the Guttmacher Institute.
Chandra acknowledged other factors might play a role but said the findings are compelling because the study tracked teens over time and found a striking relationship.
“The magnitude of the association we did see was very strong,” she said.