Can you name the last five movies your teenage son or daughter has watched with friends? How strong was the sexual content in those movies? Does it really matter?
New research suggests it does. The study, conducted by Ross O'Hara and soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science, found that on-screen promiscuity promotes promiscuity in real life.
“Adolescents who are exposed to more sexual content in movies start having sex at younger ages, have more sexual partners” and engage in riskier sexual activities, Mr. O'Hara said.
While at Dartmouth University, Mr. O'Hara (now a researcher at the University of Missouri) and his team analyzed the movie-watching patterns of about 1,200 young teens, ages 12 to 14. Researchers analyzed the teens’ sexual behavior six years later, considering the age at which they became sexually active, their number of partners and the riskiness of their sexual activity, including whether they used contraceptives.
The result: bad news. Young teens who viewed movies with sexual content were profoundly influenced by what they watched. They initiated sexual behavior earlier than their peers who had viewed less sexual content, and they tended to imitate the on-screen sexual behaviors they saw — which included casual sex, having multiple partners and high-risk behaviors.
It’s not surprising, really. Teens crave information about sex — and too often turn to the media for information. Moreover, adolescent hormones operate in overdrive, and teens naturally are more sensitive to sexual stimulation. Less likely to delay gratification, teens are more likely to be impulsive and think themselves impervious to harm. The combination, researchers say, means that “sensation seeking, or the tendency to seek more novel and intense sexual stimulation” increases in teens who “watched more movies with sexually explicit content.”
So what should parents do?
How to save your family: Select movies with your children
Mr. O'Hara sums it up well, saying, “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.”
Agreed. Unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as checking a movie’s rating. In fact, G-rated movies are part of the problem. The O’Hara study also analyzed the sexual content in 700 films, all top-grossing films from 1998 to 2004. Defining “sexual content” as anything from heavy kissing to actual sex scenes, researchers found sexual content in more than a third of the G-rated movies, more than half of PG-rated films and 4 out of every 5 R-rated movies.
Short of prohibiting movies — an unwise and unworkable solution — there are some things a parent can do. First, use websites that provide specific information about a movie’s content, rather than a reviewer’s judgment about an appropriate viewing age.
Websites such as www.PluggedIn.com and www.movieguide.org provide not only specifics about movie content, but also analysis from a Christian perspective. (PluggedIn offers reviews of music and gaming products, as well.) Two straightforward secular sources are www.ScreenIt.com and www.kids-in-mind.com. Both provide valuable descriptions of specific movie content, including sexuality, violence and language.
The Parent’s Television Council, at www.ParentsTV.org, is an excellent resource for information on the content of popular TV shows and offers great movie reviews.
One caution: Some websites, such as www.CommonSenseMedia.org, lean left or are tied in tightly with entertainment industry folks and can’t be relied upon by parents who want to raise children with traditional values.
Second, talk with your children about sex. While sex won’t be a casual dinnertime conversation topic, you need to create private time with your teens to explore their feelings and questions about sex. If we’re silent, our teens will learn about sex from friends and the movies — a route that’s sure to normalize sexual risk-taking.
Third, stay in the loop. Talk with other parents and get to know your teen’s friends. Realize that at some point your child probably will see something too sexually explicit, whether at a friend’s house or on a computer. Keep the conversations going and remind your teens that Hollywood is a world without consequences.
• Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.