Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Doin’ It Like They Do on the Discovery Channel?

I will be the first to admit that I watch a lot of television. I mean, my DVR is always threatening to delete an episode of The Amazing Race or Project Runway (don’t judge, you know you watch it as well) because it needs to make space for yet another show that I have added to the queue. I have long since come to terms with the idea that I am sacrificing hours that I could actually be outdoors (what good is sunlight?) but I do think that television has a lot of valuable lessons to offer if we just take the time to consider about the messages that we’re being presented with.

A study[i], published last week in Pediatrics, reported it more likely for teens exposed to a high level of sexual content from television to experience a pregnancy in future years compared with peers who had lower levels of contact. I would, in an attempt to avert the whole “media is corruptingAmerica’s youth” notion, point out that the study also mentions that a variety of factors contribute to teen pregnancy, including social, individual, and environmental influences. Still, the idea that young people pick up something from television programs seems worth exploring a bit further.

Observational learning posits that an individual can acquire knowledge simply through the act of watching an example (e.g., most people who have never fired a gun could probably take the correct grip due to their exposure to firearms on television). Taking this idea a step further, it seems likely that people who see sex on TV would naturally garner ideas about the act based on what they saw.

In retrospect, it seems quite obvious that American youth begin to formulate their ideas of sex and sexuality from things that they see on television. In our country, sexual activity is not something that is discussed in any real terms amongst most teenagers, and therefore it seems only natural that young people are getting their information from any source that they can.

For me, the problem arises when teenagers get a skewed sense of sex due to their television exposure. Sure, there’s an element of sex that is exciting (partially because it possesses a verboten quality) but what happens when young people are not exposed to the responsibilities that come along with having a sexual relationship? I get that every instance of sexual contact can’t be “A Very Special Episode” (or 7th Heaven for that matter) but does television have a responsibility to instruct its viewers in all aspects of sex? Is there a way to do this without losing others’ interest or making a big deal about it?

More than anything, this study brings about the idea that television, or media as a whole, cannotbe the only way that young people learn about sex. No matter what your feelings on the topic, it seems prudent to instruct young people in the matter so that they can make the decisions that are right for them. The challenge as parents (although not a parent myself, I’ve been exposed to many families through work) is that it’s scary to let your children go and hope that you’ve equipped them with the necessary tools to make good decisions. As adults, it seems all too easy to forget that we were once curious youth who did the best that we could to make our way in a world that constantly sent us mixed messages; looking back as people who have made it through the harrowing journey of adolescence, it seems all to easy to dictate the correct path as we have our answers readily at hand.


[i] Chandra, Anita et. al. Does Watching Sex on Television Predict Teen Pregnancy? Findings from a National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Pediatrics 2008; 122; 1047-1054

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