Sex in the media is one of the leading sex educators for young people today. Traditional media (e.g., TV, movies, music) influence teens’ attitudes and beliefs about sex and gender, as well as sexual behavior and health. More than 20 studies provide supporting evidence for this conclusion. A small number of recent studies suggests that social media (both creating and viewing online content) may have similar effects.
As many as 15% have of youth have sent or received a “sext” (a graphic video, picture, or text of themselves). Sexting may represent a normal variant of teen relationship development but carries risks of personal communications being shared with others and is associated with other risk behaviors such as sexual activity and substance use. Access to pornography and to more extreme pornographic content has expanded as pornography has moved online, creating greater potential for unhealthy changes in exposed youths’ sexual expectations and beliefs.
Much more research is needed, particularly studies of social media, mediating (process) and moderating (protective) factors such as developmental stage, impact on minority youth, and identifying positive uses of media to improve knowledge and reduce sexual risk. Studies should also track the type and amount of sexual content in multiple media over time.
How much of an influence does sex in the media actually have on young people?
Viewing sexual content is one of many risk factors in whether teens will begin having sexual intercourse at a young age (and the younger they are, the less likely they are to use contraception). Many other factors are involved as well–family factors, sex education, personality factors — but media can play a significant role, making youth act, sexually, like they are older than their years.
Is exposure to sexual content more problematic in the digital age than it was previously?
Although there have been no formal studies of sexual content in mainstream media since 2005, it is likely the answer to this is a resounding “yes.” Certainly, with all of the current devices available to most teens (smartphones, iPads, etc.), it is far easier to access sexual content than ever before, and youth are now also able to create sexual content, like sexts, that pose new risks.
Which teenagers are most affected by sexual media?
The answer to this question is important and at the moment is not well understood. Much more research is needed. But it is clear that parents who co-view media content with their kids and discuss what they’re viewing are much more likely to have teenagers who wait until they’re older to begin having sex.
- Teenagers’ beliefs, attitudes, behavior and health can be influenced by sexual content in the media.
- Digital media create the potential for greater access and participation and may thus expand both the negative and positive potential of sexual media’s influence.
- Sexting and pornography are important issues affecting teenagers and need to be more thoroughly researched and dealt with by parents and by schools.
Guidelines for Parents
- Ensure that the “sex education” provided by media is supplemented (and countered) by accurate information regarding sexual health and healthy sexual relationships.
- As often as possible, spend time using media with your children, co-viewing and also observing what messages youth create, and commenting on what you see as appropriate or inappropriate, accurate or inaccurate, sexual messages. Sharing media provides opportunities not only to counter unhealthy sexual media but to open conversations about sex that parents sometimes find difficult to begin.
- Seek out positive gender role models and healthy relationship examples in media to share with their children and help them to avoid viewing sexual objectification and relationship game-playing as normal. Discuss sexting and online pornography before children go online unsupervised and repeat discussions regularly. Keep in mind that youth need to feel comfortable coming to you if they see something inappropriate or are being pressured to participate in sexting.
- Tools to help parents manage their children’s media use and the messages media contain and to discuss media issues are available at commonsensemedia.org and healthychildren.org/English/family-life/Media.
Collins, R.L., Strasburger, V.C., Brown, J.D., Donnerstein, E., Lenhart, A., & Ward, L.M. (2017) Sexual Media and Childhood Well-Being and Health. Pediatrics, 140(140S2). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1758X
The analysis, conclusions, and recommendations contained in each paper are solely a product of the individual workgroup and are not the policy or opinions of, nor do they represent an endorsement by, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.