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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Teens and the "Idiot Box"

Two weeks ago the Rand Corporation released a study showing that teens who watch racy shows are twice as likely to become pregnant or be responsible for a pregnancy over the next three years. Researchers rightly point out, the reasons for teen pregnancy are both diverse and complex and therefore have no single determining factor as to which kids will get pregnant and which won’t. However, the kids who watched the most sexual content on TV were twice as likely to be involved in a pregnancy as the kids who watched the least sexual content.

A different study conducted several years ago by some of the same researchers, indicated that kids who watched sexual content on TV had sex at earlier ages. You might be tempted to think the solution is simple: limit or eliminate the TV sexual content teens see. Of course, this solution doesn’t take into account the sexual content teens are exposed to on the Internet, in magazines, music and movies and ignores the technical challenges and Constitutional concerns in limiting such content for kids while not interfering with rights of the general public.

Researchers point out that another aspect of media depictions of sexuality is those depictions are not realistic. For example, all media formats are notoriously silent on the consequences of sex such as diseases, pregnancy and the moral implications. The limited information available is either wrong or not in keeping with the message parents would like to send.

For these reasons, the authors are not calling upon any particular TV show, channel or network to be held accountable. Instead, they believe more realistic plotlines, and frank discussions of consequences will be of greater benefit to both parents and their teens.

Kids today have greater success of information than at any time in human history. Compounding this phenomenon is the fact that kids are maturing earlier physically, but later socially. Menarche is occurring sooner for girls, but they marry later. For boys, puberty is sooner, but the age they are expected to enter the work force is later for most. The place where these factors collide is where this problem lives.

In our own family, now that we have teenagers, we have found success in monitoring what the kids watch; not to limit any particular programming, but to know what they are watching in an effort to be able to have frank, sometimes uncomfortable, discussions. We have found it to be far more important to ask their opinion of these situations, listen carefully, and then ask other questions to allow them to discover answers for themselves. Lectures, especially lectures disconnected to their reality are of little perceived value and probably limited real value as well. To use this method a parent must be confident in their values system and their ability to discuss it intelligently.

As parents, there is an attraction to shielding our kids from depictions of explicit sex, violence or drug use; much in the same way that I am not ready to have the kids start dating. However in the case of dating, my wife’s wisdom is prevailing. She points out that if they are dating for a couple of years while living at home, then we can guide them through the process; but if they were to wait until after they are married (my favorite option), then we would not be there to help them be successful.

Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. Mark has completed graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is working on a PhD in Leadership studies at Texas A&M University. He is happy to speak or provide a workshop for your organization and can be reached at

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