NASHVILLE, Tenn. Parents may now have a more urgent reason to monitor what their children watch on television, a new study suggests.
Researchers at Children's Hospital Boston found that early teen sex may be linked to viewing adult content on television as children. The study tracked children from ages 6 to 18 and found that the sooner children began to view adult content on television programs and movies, the earlier they became sexually active during adolescence.
"Television and movies are among the leading sources of information about sex and relationships for adolescents," said Hernan Delgado, a specialist in adolescent and young adult medicine at Children's Hospital Boston and the study's lead author, in a news release on the study. "Our research shows that their sexual attitudes and expectations are influenced much earlier in life."
Dwayne Hastings, vice president of communications at the the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, agrees.
"It is a proven fact that the unchecked, prurient content on television and in movie theaters is a primary factor in the coarsening of the culture," Hastings said. "Advertisers are willing to shell out millions of dollars for television commercials because they are confident they can sway our behavior. We should not be surprised then to discover that what we watch on television shapes attitudes toward sexuality while perverting God's design."
Parents, not television actors and actresses, should be introducing in age appropriate steps an understanding of human sexuality as God intended, Hastings added.
The study's 754 participants 365 males and 389 females were tracked during two stages, first in childhood and again from ages 12 to 18. During both stages, researchers recorded television programs and movies watched, along with the time spent watching them, over two sample days. The program and movie titles determined what was considered adult content. In the second stage, researchers tracked the onset of sexual activity.
Some of the findings may shock parents. For example, the study found that over the two sample days, for every hour the youngest group of children ages 6 to 8 watched adult content on television, their chances of having sex during early adolescence rose 33 percent.
The reverse was not found to be true (i.e. becoming sexually active during adolescence did not increase youth's viewing of adult-targeted television and movies).
"Children have neither the life experience nor the brain development to fully differentiate between a reality they are moving toward and a fiction meant solely to entertain," warned David Bickham, staff scientist in the Center on Media and Child Health and co-author of the study, in the hospital's news release. "Children learn from media, and when they watch media with sexual references and innuendos, our research suggests they are more likely to engage in sexual activity earlier in life."
This study is not the only one to link media with teen sexual activity. A 2006 study by the University of North Carolina found that teens exposed to media with high sexual content were more likely to have sex by age 16 than their less exposed counterparts.
For parents who wish to shield their children from the dangers of adult television content, there is no single foolproof solution.
The researchers involved in the Children's Hospital Boston study recommend parents follow current viewing guidelines established by the American Academy of Pediatrics. These include no television in the bedroom, only one or two hours of TV a day, watching programs with your children and having open discussions about the content.
While television ratings can be a helpful tool, parents currently relying on them exclusively to keep their children safe from sexual content may want to think twice. A 2007 study by the Parents Television Council revealed that 67 percent of the time programs included sexual content even though they did not have the "S" label to warn viewers.
Hastings believes Christian parents must be vigilant and active in monitoring what the little eyes in their families see.
"Scripture is clear that God entrusts a child's parents with the duty to protect their mind and their body," he said. "When we hand our children over to those who are not concerned about their well-being, we fail our children and we put future generations at risk."