[caption id="attachment_1708" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Image by Scott Chan"][/caption] Recently, I wrote a post about a study conducted by researchers at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire which shed important light onto the influence that smoking in movies has upon adolescent behavior. It was an interesting study with none-too-surprising results. Yet, however reluctant the FCC is to institute ‘R’ ratings for movies in which the actors smoke, the correlation has been, and continues to be, established. Yet for another, equally dangerous teen behavior, sex, the number of studies which track the influence of media and film especially on teen actions is surprisingly slim. This has happened despite the fact that designations like “nudity” and “sexually explicit content” have long been established as grounds for ‘R’ ratings and above. That’s precisely why a new study also out of Dartmouth and which will be published in Psychological Science is so important. For the first time a definitive connection between seeing sexually explicit content in movies and engaging in sexual activities has been made and the results are alarming. Understanding the Study Adolescents are an incredibly impressionable set. Anyone who has worked with them, especially during crucial developmental years in junior high and early high school, knows that every factor of their lives from their families to their friends to their leisure activities can have huge consequences on their ultimate actions and decisions. As lead researcher from the Dartmouth study, Ross O’Hara explains, however, “the role of movies has been somewhat neglected, despite other findings that movies are more influential than TV or music.” It is with this in mind that the Dartmouth team began their research by first surveying 684 of the highest grossing movies of the years 1998 through 2004. Each movie was coded for sexual content which ranged from making out to actual sex. The idea was to take this survey as a building block added to a more definitive research project which catalogued all moves made from 1950 to 2006 which discovered that 84% of all movies, regardless of rating, contained some measure of sexual content. In addition, almost every one of the contemporary movies surveyed contained no mention of safe sex or the consequences of having sex at all. The next step in the process was finding teens to participate in the study. A total of 1228 teens aged 12 to 14 were recruited to identify which movies they had seen when given a list of 50 random titles. Then, the researchers re-contacted the teens six years later and asked them follow-up questions about sexual activity. This included whether they were sexually active, whether they used protection, and whether they were monogamous or had multiple partners. Comprehending the Results As the farthest reaching study of its kind, the conclusion that the degree of sexual activity engaged in by each young adult directly correlates with the degree of sexual activity viewed in the movies was stark. O’Hara explains, “Adolescents who are exposed to more sexual content in movies start having sex at younger ages, have more sexual partners, and are less likely to use condoms with casual sexual partners.” Though there is still not enough data to establish a definitive causal relationship, the influence of media on teen sex is important. Take for instance, the additional information gathered by the team at Dartmouth. They also looked into the influence that sexual content in movies has on what is called “sensation seeking” behavior, a predisposition which peaks at ages 10-15. Sensation seeking involves the act of searching out more intense and novel stimulation. Their research seems to point towards a relationship between prolonged tendencies to engage in sensation seeking behavior as a result of exposure to sexual content in movies. Again, O’Hara explains, “These movies appear to fundamentally influence [teens] personality through changes in sensation-seeking which has far-reaching implications for all of their risk-taking behaviors.” Indeed, the influence that the movies and other media have on teens is quite intense. In another survey, 57% of American adolescents aged 14 to 16 reported that the media, in one form or another, was their number one source for sexual information, including expectations regarding sexual relationships and performance. Tips for Parents and Educators The results of this study, like any study that looks at the media and adolescents, are a huge aid for parents and educators alike. Not only does it reconfirm the need to keep sexually explicit content away from the eyes of young teens, it also shows the importance of open discussions of sex and sexuality in the home. If parents are to replace the media as teens’ number one source of information, the best way for them to do so is through direct engagement with their teens. This is an idea which the school can support by offering parents resources and tips for having “the talk” at any age.
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