Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill surveyed 1,017 black and white teens when they were 12 to 14 years old and again two years later, asking them about their use of four different kinds of media and their sexual behavior. These adolescents were from North Carolina's Durham, Orange and Granville counties.
White teens in the study who had a high sexual media diet when they were 12 to 14 years old were more than twice as likely as those with less exposure to sex in the media to have had sexual intercourse two years later. The relationship was not as strong for black teens as it was for whites.
"Teens are defaulting to entertainment media for sexual information because they aren't getting this information in other places," said Dr. Jane D. Brown, James L. Knight professor in UNC's School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the principal investigator of the study, which is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
"Unfortunately, the media aren't the best sex educators. The media tend to leave out the crucial three C's: commitment, contraception and consequences."
This is believed to be the first study of the relationship of four different kinds of media to adolescents' sexual behavior. The sexual content researchers found in the movies, music, television and magazines teens used ranged from sexual innuendo to nudity to depictions of sexual intercourse.
Brown and her colleagues found that one of the strongest protective factors against early sexual behavior was clear parental communication about sex. White teens who reported that their parents did not approve of them having sex at this age were less likely to have engaged in precoital sexual behavior. Both black and white youth who reported their parents did not want them to have sex were less likely to have engaged in sexual intercourse by the time they were 16 years old than those who perceived less parent disapproval of teen sex.
In an editorial accompanying the Pediatrics article, pediatrician Dr. Victor Strasburger said that pediatricians, teachers, parents and the entertainment industry must think about sexual activity differently from how they confront other risky behaviors to which teens may be attracted.
"Remember that sex is not like drugs," Strasburger wrote. "We want our children to have happy, healthy sex lives - when they are older, not when they are 13."
Brown said the media, schools, parents and pediatricians need to provide more accurate and timely sexual information to teens. "Otherwise, the media will continue to serve as a kind of sexual super peer that doesn't have the best interests of young people in mind," she said.