Sex on the Silver Screen for a Teen

Sexual behavior among teens linked to amount of movie sex they see

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

You know those incredible intense movie kisses that make you tingle? Or those steamy Hollywood sex scenes you can't get out of your mind? Ever wonder how they affect teenager's mind?

A group of researchers decided to find out.

Their study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and published recently in the journal Psychological Science, came to similar conclusions about seeing sex on the big screen as past studies have found regarding smoking and drinking in movies: the more teens see of it, the more likely they decide to have sex earlier - and the more risks they take in their sex lives.

"Pay attention to the shows your children watch."

The study, led by Ross E. O'Hara, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychological and Brain Science at Dartmouth College, involved coding a total of 684 films for the amount of sexual content in them and then comparing adolescents' exposure to these films to how early each teen lost his or her virginity.

The researchers used a similar method as had been used in a past survey of films from 1950 to 2006 that found sexual content in 84 percent of them, ranging from intense kissing to intercourse.

That past survey, according to this study's background information, found that 68 percent of the G-rated film, 82 percent of the PG films and 85 percent of the PG-13 films all had sexual content in them.

How They Conducted the Study

First, the researchers coded 523 top-grossing movies from 1998 to 2003 according to the amount of sexual content in them. Films were rated based on how many seconds of sexual content were observed by two evaluators. Then, Dr. O'Hara and colleagues conducted a telephone survey with 6,522 kids, aged 10 to 14, about which of 50 films, randomly selected from the 523, they had seen.

The researchers followed up with the teens about every eight months for three times after the first phone call and then at five years and seven years after the initial survey. During the second follow-up, the teens were asked about a selection of an additional 161 top-grossing movies that had come out after the first survey and that had been coded the same way as the others for the amount of sexual content they contained.

The researchers were able to reach 2,718 of the original participants on the last follow-up but only included participants in the study analysis who were at least 18 years old at that final follow-up and who had become sexually active only after the second follow-up call. The final number of adolescents whose data was analyzed for the study included 1,228 participants who had been between 12 and 14 during the first survey, almost exactly half male and half female and of diverse races/ethnicities.

The participants were asked when they became sexually active, plus other questions to determine how risky the teens' sexual behavior might be, such as how often they used condoms and whether they had sex with multiple partners. The teens' level of risky sexual behavior was determined based on how many vaginal or oral sex partners they had and how often they had casual sex without a condom.

In addition to taking into account the children's gender, race and age, the researchers gathered data on how often they attended church or participated in religious activities, how many hours of television they watched daily, whether they had a television in their bedroom, whether they lived in a two-parent or divorced/single-parent home.

The researchers also asked the participants questions to determine their level of "sensation seeking," which is a term used to describe the tendency children have between ages 10 and 15 to seek out new and intense stimulating experiences.

Their calculations also took into account the exposure the participants had to sexual content in films between the second follow-up call and the first time the teens engaged in sexual activity.

What They Found

The results of their analysis revealed that there was a link between how much sexual content adolescents were exposed to in films and how soon they became sexually active. There was also an association between increased exposure to sex on the screen and engaging in riskier sexual behavior.

"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," Dr. O'Hara said.

He and his colleagues calculated that each additional hour's worth of sexual content from the movies was linked to a five times greater likelihood that the teen would become sexually active that year. That number can sound large and be misleading, however, because of the way the researchers did their calculations.

It doesn't mean that a teen lost their virginity the first year they saw dozens of hours of sex on the big screen, but it does mean that the amount of steamy scenes they watched corresponded partly to how soon they jumped in the sack themselves. The takeaway is that the researchers found a link between teens becoming sexually active sooner and watching a lot of sexual content in films - but their study did not and could not establish that seeing sex in movies actually caused the kids to have sex.

The connection between watching sex on screen and having sex earlier appeared to be related to how much sensation seeking the participants had: the more sexual content they were exposed to, the more they appeared to seek out new and intense "sensations," which was linked to becoming sexually active sooner.

Sensation seeking in past research has been linked to earlier sexual experiences and appeared influenced by both biology and by social environment. Dr. O'Hara and colleagues therefore guessed that the increased amount of sensation seeking that occurred among the teens watching a lot of on-screen sex may have also played a part in their decision to have sex.

This link was slightly stronger among boys than among girls, but the researchers found other factors that were also linked to a higher likelihood of becoming sexually active sooner. These included being from a home in which there was a single or divorced parent and having a television in the bedroom.

Meanwhile, past research has already shown that observing behavior such as smoking and drinking in films can influence young people to smoke and drink themselves. A recent Pediatrics study found that even seeing images of smoking in PG-13 films was linked to adolescents taking their own first puff on a cigarette sooner.

While the US Surgeon General has concluded that smoking on screen can cause teens to light up sooner, this study does not establish causation. It only establishes an association between watching sex and having sex sooner.

In general, the researchers found that males and females were equally likely to have become sexually active by the final follow-up (when they were all at least 18) and had lost their virginity at about the same age. The boys, however, reported having more sexual partners, engaging in more casual sex without a condom and having more "sensation seeking" than the females did.

What Does It All Mean?

The sooner a teen becomes sexually active, the sooner he or she becomes at risk for contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or having an unplanned pregnancy. The background information in this study predicts that delaying teenagers' first sexual experiences could also slow the spread of STIs and reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies.

Currently, approximately 9 million adolescents each year are newly diagnosed with an STI, and about 64 pregnancies occur for every 1,000 girls age 19 or younger.

The desire to seek out those new sensations fades as a teen grows into adulthood, so delaying the first sexual experience even a year or two may decrease the level of risky behavior the teen might be inclined to engage in. The background information notes that higher levels of sensation seeking are linked to more casual sex in adulthood.

Ultimately, parents should recognize the media content their children are exposed to and the ways that content might influence a child's decision, as the past studies with tobacco and alcohol use have already pointed out.

"Much research has shown that adolescents' sexual attitudes and behaviors are influenced by media," said Dr. O'Hara. "But the role of movies has been somewhat neglected, despite other findings that movies are more influential than TV or music."

Even though the study could not establish that watching sexual content in movies could cause teens to have sex earlier, Dr. O'Hara suggests taking the cautious route.

"This study, and its confluence with other work, strongly suggests that parents need to restrict their children from seeing sexual content in movies at young ages," he said.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 25, 2012