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Sexual behavior: what teens learn from media

If you don't talk to your kids about your own values and expectations about sex, the main input they'll get is from the media. Here are some guidelines to help you.

Music videos, movies, reality shows, beer ads, online porn, prostitutes in video games, sexy doctor shows. Sex is everywhere. And studies show that the more sexual content kids watch and listen to, the earlier they're likely to have sex themselves. In fact, teens report that their main source of information about sex, dating and sexual health comes from what they see and hear in the media. Public health experts say that the media can be an effective sex educator when it includes specific information on birth control methods and sexually transmitted diseases. But in 2005, out of 68% of TV shows that showed steamy sexual content, only 15% discussed risk and responsibility. And it's not just movies and TV: Music, video games, and the Internet are also filled with sexually explicit, often-degrading messages that can shape kids' attitudes about sex.

Why you should care:

Because if you don't talk to your kids about your own values and expectations about sex, the main input they'll get is from the media. And that world makes dressing sexy, talking about sex and casual hook-ups seem like the norm. Teen pregnancy may not be on the rise, but sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) sure are, as is a rise in sexualized violence. And so much of online life is anonymous, which creates false sexual bravado and allows for sexually aggressive action divorced from consequences. Do you really want your boys looking at girls as sex objects and your girls using sexiness as a foundation for their identities?

Some facts you should know

  • 72% of teens think watching TV with a lot of sexual content influences their peers' behavior somewhat or a lot.
  • Programs with sexual content average 4.4 scenes per hour.
  • On average, music videos contain 93 sexual situations per hour, including 11 hard-core scenes depicting behavior like intercourse and oral sex.
  • Between 1998 and 2005, the number of sexual scenes on TV nearly doubled.
  • 1 in 5 children will be approached by a sexual predator online.
  • 15-to 24-year-olds account for nearly half of all STD diagnoses each year.
  • Watching a lot of sexual content on TV and listening to sexually explicit music lyrics increase the chances that a teen will have sex at an earlier age.
  • 60% of female video game characters are presented in a sexualized fashion.
  • The biggest users of online pornography are 12-to 17-year-old boys.

Common sense says

  • Talk about your values. You can't always be around to cover your kids' eyes or ears, but you can help them develop inner compasses by sharing your feelings about the role of sex in their lives.
  • Watch and listen with your kids. When a sexy song comes on the radio with lyrics you don't think are healthy, say why. Ask your kids what they think and whether they know people who act like the singers or actors.
  • Be age appropriate. Child development experts say kids 5-7 can handle the concept of boy/girl relationships, but nothing more explicit. For 8- to 10-year-olds, body-part jokes are age appropriate, but not sexual humor. It gets really tough in adolescence, where, for 11- to 12-year-olds, scenes of simple kissing and boy/girl social dynamics are okay, but graphic nudity and simulated sex aren't great for their developing ideas about what sex is. For younger teens, sex has become commonplace in their media world, but given that most of those kids haven't had it yet, try to really limit their exposure to anything graphic.
  • Talk about consequences and bring examples down to earth. Is a guy beating up a girl in that video game? Is the singer talking about how many girls he sleeps with without knowing their names? How would your kids feel if that happened to them? Have you mentioned that, in the real world, unprotected sex can lead to pregnancy and STDs?
  • No sexual media content is appropriate for kids ages 2-4.
  • No sex and violence together. Unless the media's focus is on the consequences of sexually violent behavior, it's not appropriate for anyone.
  • No porn sites. Establish clear rules about where your kids can go online. Check your computer history to see where they've been going.
  • No sexual language. Kids call each other "ho" (and they aren't talking about Santa). Tell your tweens and teens that IMing or texting something that can seem sexual can get them into a heap of trouble. Fast.

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Common Sense Media is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping parents make informed media and entertainment choices for their families.

Comments from readers

"Please list your sources....what studies? "
"My daughter tells me that her male 10 year old classmate is (Bi, I dont think she has the full meaning down, but what this kid says at 10 is rather disturbing to me, I guess I'm an old prude of a Dad. "
"This is exactly why I hate Two and Half Men! I have two boys ages 7 and 8 and they think old Charlie is a laugh and a half. I tell them NO, he isn't. He is a PIG and you don't treat women like he does and it isn't right to go out every night and come home with a different woman and have sex with her. I also tell them that Alan is a pathetic loser and nobody grovels for sex like he does. You don't just go out and pick up some woman, have sex with her and kick her to the curb or beg for sex or do things to get sex. No, this show is on my hit list big time. My husband thinks it's funny and maybe it is for adults but I find the whole premise to be revolting and it goes against what I am trying to teach my young sons. I won't let them watch it anymore...or anything about Charlie Sheen. "
"I am more concerned about the violence on tv than about the sex. Similarly, I find the gender and age stereotypes are much more concerning for younger children than the occasional kiss or skin. It always amazes me that sex and death are more taboo in this society than beating, hitting, and killing other people. "
"Parents; remember; the "history" can be erased. Insist that the history is untouched by your kids; that you have every right to check their "history". If you discover the history has been "erased" then their time on the computer should be "erased"; they're off it for a week, or month, that they erased. No shouting, no debate. Set the rules, be polite, be firm; then you'll earn their respect. "
"Parents and others are concerned about how television is socializing children. They are unhappy with the content of many shows, especially the amount of violence they contain and their persistent portrayal of gender and other stereotypes. On TV women tend to be portrayed as submissive and domesticated; men are shown as knowledgable and independent; elders are presented as lacking common sense. Thus, major network programming often provides an impoverished version of American Culture, with implicit and detrimental messages about race, marriage, divorce and the family. Just as preconceptions about TV as a medium of entertainment can blind us to its role in socialization, so preconceptions about school as a place for learning 'academics' tend to obscure the fact that considerable socialization takes place in school as well."