The more sexual content in television and magazines that teens are exposed to, the more likely they are to have sexual intercourse at an early age, a new study says.
The University of North Carolina study, published in today's issue of the journal Pediatrics, concludes that white adolescents who view more sexual content than their peers are 2.2 times more likely to have sexual intercourse by the time they are 14 to 16 years old.
"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," the study authors state.
And, as similar past studies have noted, "one of the strongest protective factors against early sexual behavior was clear parental communication about sex."
But, as both the authors and other critics note, the analysis has several important limitations. The survey of sexual behavior only included 1,017 teens in three public school districts in North Carolina, and did not take into account exposure to sexual content on the Internet.
Julia A. Ericksen, chair of the department of sociology at Temple University, said that it's not surprising that sexual content on television and in magazines might have an impact on teen behavior.
But, she said, it's easy to oversimplify such a complex topic, since many things can influence a young teenager's sexual behavior, like the advent of puberty.
"It makes sense to think that young people create their ideas about appropriate sexual behavior from the messages they receive and that these messages are most attractively packaged by the media," she said. "But demonstrating this is difficult because teens experience so many influences on their sexual attitudes, and sorting them out is not easy."
There's also a chicken-or-egg component to the issue, Ericksen says.
"It is likely that teens who are most interested in sex are both more likely to watch shows on television with sex in them and more likely to experiment sexually," she said.