Does TV Cause Teen Pregnancy?

I’ll be the first to admit that the quality of TV programming, especially network programs, leaves much to be desired. Critics of television have blamed TV for everything from violence to obesity. Now studies have shown that teens who watch sexy programs are more likely to become sexually active and to get pregnant. I’m not so sure that these studies really show what TV critics think they show. My local newspaper was equally skeptical.

We frequently criticize media coverage of scientific issues, so for once I’d like to offers kudos to the Tacoma News Tribune for publishing this editorial:

TV and teen pregnancy: A lot else is also at work
Published: November 5th, 2008 12:30 AM

For parents, the headline was ominous: “Study links TV, teen pregnancy.”
The article that appeared in The News Tribune Tuesday reported on a Rand Corp. study published in this month’s issue of Pediatrics magazine. Researchers say they found a link between higher teen pregnancy rates and watching television shows that have lots of sexual dialogue and behavior – ones like “Sex in the City, “That ‘70s Show” and “Friends.”

The implication is that if teens watch such racy programming, they’re more likely to become sexually active themselves – and therefore more at risk of getting pregnant or impregnating someone else.

But couldn’t something else also be at work here?

Couldn’t teens who are more inclined toward sexual activity choose to watch shows with more sex in them? Perhaps parents who don’t exert much discipline over their children’s viewing habits are less likely to ask where their children are going on a Saturday night or what they’re doing after school before the parents get home from work.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that teens who watch racy TV shows will get ideas they otherwise might not have. But teens were getting “in trouble” long before television was around.

And how do the researchers explain the fact that teen pregnancy rates declined for 15 years until a slight rise in 2006 – a rise experts say could just be a statistical hiccup? During those 15 years, TV shows got more sexually charged, not less.

It’s far too simplistic to blame TV for teen pregnancy when so many factors in society are work. It’s probably safe to say that even if every TV in America suddenly stopped working, teenagers would still get pregnant.

The best thing parents can do to prevent teen pregnancy is to talk to their children about sex and be involved with their lives. That way TV programs and other forms of popular media won’t be the only ones giving kids messages about sex.

Studies like these are problematic. It’s hard to quantify the amount of sexual content, much less how favorably it is presented. It’s hard to know how individual kids react to the depictions – I can imagine my fashion-conscious daughter watching a show like “Sex and the City” to ooh and aah over the dresses and the Manolo Blahnik shoes but thinking “Yuck! Why does she have to be such a slut?” during the sex scenes.

If there were no TV, kids would find out about sex through romance novels, porn, peers, and the Internet. If adults attempt to restrict exposure, that just creates attractive forbidden fruit. There’s something to be said for sexuality being out in the open, for giving kids information sooner rather than later. I think censorship is generally counterproductive. The Catholic Church used to put forbidden books on an Index, and parishioners rushed to read them. Sales of Lady Chatterly’s Lover thrived on the publicity over the obscenity trials.

Do children become violent because they watch violent programs, or are they more likely to watch violent programs because they already have violent tendencies? Is it possible that some children tempted by sex or violence could get vicarious thrills from TV and be less likely to act out in person?

There is something about TV programming that worries me more than sex and violence. What about all the shows that eschew critical thinking and promote belief in things like ghosts, talking to the dead, psychics, creating your own reality, and pseudoscientific tommyrot? What about documentaries like the one that spent most of an hour hyping the quack healer John of God and only devoted a couple of out-of-context sound bites to the skeptics?

TV isn’t all bad. I’ve been amazed at the variety of knowledge my children have picked up from television. When my daughter was 3 or 4 she asked me if I had licked the blood off her when she was born. She’d seen a doe licking a newborn fawn on TV. I matter-of-factly told her the nurse had cleaned her with a towel. She wasn’t upset and I wasn’t upset that she’d learned about the birth process and the fact that it was accompanied by blood.

How should sex on television be regulated? Should we go back to the “one foot on the floor” rule? A recent PBS Masterpiece presentation “Filth” depicted the true story of a British woman who tried to ban indecency from British television. She’s so clueless that she has never heard of oral sex, and at one point her husband has to advise her to change her slogan “Clean Up National Television” to something with less suggestive initials. What would happen if we had only sex-free, bowdlerized television programming? My guess is that the teen pregnancy rate would not only not fall but might rise.

Correlation isn’t causation. Studies like these can’t control for all the confounding variables. One recent study showed that unhappy people spend more time watching TV. Can you compare a well-adjusted teen with a supportive family who watches a sexy program and discusses it with her parents to an impressionable latchkey child who is surrounded by teenage mothers and dysfunctional adults and is looking for love in all the wrong places? I think the News Tribune editorial got it right: if we want to reduce teen pregnancies we should be more concerned about good parenting than about the content of TV shows.

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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