A study published online in Developmental Psychology suggests that, while there is a link between hypersexualized kids and overtly sexual content on TV and in music, magazines, and movies, it isn't necessarily the one you'd expect.
The study, co-authored by Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg and University of Washington psychologist Kathryn Monahan, took another look at data that had been published in the journal Pediatrics in 2006, in which researchers claimed that preteens and teens age 12 to 14 who "consumed a large amount of sexualized media" were more likely to become sexually active by the time they turned 16. But Steinberg says that the 2006 study overlooked the reasons why those adolescents were seeking out sexualized content to begin with: They were already interested in sex. Which means that their interest led to greater consumption, he says -- and not vice versa, as commonly assumed.
Kids age 8 to 18 spend more than 53 hours a week online or in front of a TV screen, according to a study by The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation released this past February. That's a little more than seven-and-a-half hours a day during which they're viewing TV or clicking away on the computer, playing video games, or using their smart phones. Media use increased substantially, the study found, once respondents hit the 11- to 14-year-old age range. And with teen pregnancy rates on the rise for the first time in a decade, blaming the media is a popular and easy explanation.
“These factors certainly warrant concern from adults,” Steinberg said in an interview released by Temple University. “But instead of pointing a collective finger at the entertainment industry, the most important influences on adolescents’ sexual behavior are probably closer to home."
Though the 2006 study's authors point out that "baseline sexual behavior" was taken into consideration, Steinberg's evaluation factored in other lifestyle data as well, about the subjects' school performances, levels of religiousness, relationships with their parents, and their perceptions of their friends' attitudes about sex. And in doing so he found that the link between exposure to sexualized media content and the earlier age of sexual activity no longer existed.
With the entertainment industry out of the equation, though, where does that leave the too-sexy, too-soon debate? Kids are rewarded for their interest in sexy behavior even when the TV is turned off -- they're not picking out their own costumes or doing their own makeup on kiddie pageant circuit, and they're certainly not the ones hiking up the skirts on Bratz dolls. Do the study's results mean that Miley Cyrus gets a pass for her latest video? Or do parents need to be more vigilant than ever?
“There are many reasons to find the portrayal of sex in mass media objectionable,” Steinberg says. “But let’s not confuse matters of taste with matters of science.”