Pediatric Annals

Addressing Television Sexuality With Adolescents

Jennifer A Daves, MA

Abstract

Television is everywhere - in our homes, in our schools, and in our waiting rooms. This article discusses the role television plays in the lives of American teenagers, both as a constant presence in their daily routine and as an educator about sexual behavior. Pediatricians should not underestimate media's power to influence adolescent's views and perceptions of the adult world. Specific suggestions are given for the pediatrician to influence the impact of television. On a larger scale, the pediatrician can participate in the creative process by providing valuable feedback to producers, and more specifically, he or she can use the media to initiate dialogue about sexuality with patients or family members.

ADOLESCENTS AND TELEVISION: ACCESS AND VIEWING HABITS

As family ownership of television has become universal, more families are purchasing multiple sets for the household. Three fourths of 10th graders in one study said they have access to "their own personal TV set."1 Few parents impose rules or restrictions on content or on when their adolescent can watch television (Greenberg BS, Soderman A, Hector C, Linsangan R, Lin C, Stanley C. Unpublished data, August 1987) allowing considerable access to the variety of programming on network and cable stations.

Although adolescents spend more time listening to the radio than watching television,1·2 television is more likely to get their undivided attention, as radio often serves as an accompaniment to other activities. By high school graduation, the average American teenager will have spent 1 5 000 hours in front o( the television compared with 1 1 000 hours in the classroom. The only activity that engages more time is sleeping. ? The heaviest television consumers are AfricanAmerican youth, who were found in a Michigan study to watch 1.5 more hours each day than white youth.4

Table

Parents also may require assistance in implementing these suggestions. For example, the temptation to use television as an electronic babysitter can be strong, especially for working parents at the end of the day. One suggestion is to have a collection of prerecorded videotapes that are appropriate viewing. Breaking the television habit can be difficult, especially when parents are just as guilty of using television as "background." Pediatricians can make available lists of suggested books or pamphlets that address these topics and are "parent friendly." A list of such books and pamphlets is provided at the end of this article.

Co- Viewing: The Parent's Role

Watching television with children allows the parent to interpret messages, clarify personal values, and provide facts about health, sexuality, and relationships. The following pointers can help the parent make television a conversation starter.

* Address both positive and negative messages. Avoid lecturing, as children will protest constant criticism of programs they enjoy. Instead, transform a negative message into a positive discussion by asking children their views via open-ended questions (Table 3).

* Express personal opinions. Children need to know their parents' bottom line as they begin to form their own views.

* Be selective about who else is present. Young people may feel embarrassed by discussions in front of their friends or other adults.

* Don't expect a sudden burst of insight. Even if a thoughtful response is not provided, critical thinking skills are being nurtured.14,15

CONCLUSION

The media will continue to play a role as sexuality educators of young people, even if sexuality education in the schools or from parents improves dramatically. As pediatricians, the influence of the media on adolescents and children needs to be recognized, and actions should be taken to vocalize support for positive sexuality images and to assist young people in the healthy interpretation of sexuality messages.

1.…

Television is everywhere - in our homes, in our schools, and in our waiting rooms. This article discusses the role television plays in the lives of American teenagers, both as a constant presence in their daily routine and as an educator about sexual behavior. Pediatricians should not underestimate media's power to influence adolescent's views and perceptions of the adult world. Specific suggestions are given for the pediatrician to influence the impact of television. On a larger scale, the pediatrician can participate in the creative process by providing valuable feedback to producers, and more specifically, he or she can use the media to initiate dialogue about sexuality with patients or family members.

ADOLESCENTS AND TELEVISION: ACCESS AND VIEWING HABITS

As family ownership of television has become universal, more families are purchasing multiple sets for the household. Three fourths of 10th graders in one study said they have access to "their own personal TV set."1 Few parents impose rules or restrictions on content or on when their adolescent can watch television (Greenberg BS, Soderman A, Hector C, Linsangan R, Lin C, Stanley C. Unpublished data, August 1987) allowing considerable access to the variety of programming on network and cable stations.

Although adolescents spend more time listening to the radio than watching television,1·2 television is more likely to get their undivided attention, as radio often serves as an accompaniment to other activities. By high school graduation, the average American teenager will have spent 1 5 000 hours in front o( the television compared with 1 1 000 hours in the classroom. The only activity that engages more time is sleeping. ? The heaviest television consumers are AfricanAmerican youth, who were found in a Michigan study to watch 1.5 more hours each day than white youth.4

Table

TABLE 1Broadcast Network Station Addresses *f

TABLE 1

Broadcast Network Station Addresses *f

TELEVISION AS A SEXUALITY EDUCATOR

The amount of sexuality and sexual references on television is considerable. A 1988 poll found that American adolescents are exposed to 14 000 instances of sexual material on television annually. Of these, only one in 85 references mentioned birth control, sexuality education, or sexually transmitted diseases.5

Depictions of sexuality on television also are unbalanced. For example, only one of every six acts of intercourse is between married couples.6 A study of 400 high school students showed that television scenes depicting intercourse between unmarried couples were rated as the sexiest, while intercourse between married people was viewed as the least enjoyable and least sexy.7

Adolescents look to the mass media for information about sexuality given a lack of available information from parents and often, from schools. Only 47% of sexually active teens report having talked to their parents about sex and birth control, yet they cite parents as a preferred source for this information.8 A sample of 14 to 1 7 year olds rated friends and media as more important sources of information about sexuality than either parents or institutions such as school or church.7

ADOLESCENT REACTION TO SEXUAL MEDIA CONTENT

As with the controversy on the effects of media violence on behavior, the impact of media sexuality is also debated. A widely held belief among social scientists is the "media-society interaction"9 theory, which states that the media not only reflects current society, but also supports and strengthens preexisting attitudes and perceptions. It remains difficult to determine causal relationships without acknowledging the influence of individual differences, types of media consumed and in what quantity, and other operative social forces.9

Studies by Walsh-Childers and Brown10 on sex-role stereotypes, for example, indicate that teenagers may seek sexual content that reinforces their existing sexual beliefs. One ethnographic study found evidence that media selection may depend on what the adolescent needs or wants to know.

For example, young adolescent girls who had just begun heterosexual romantic rituals of hand-holding and kissing paid a great deal of attention to sexual contact in the media, while those who were already sexually active were more critical of media messages of sex and relationships. In contrast, those who had not yet begun romantic rituals preferred not to see sexual depictions in the media and were more likely to describe those they saw as "gross" or "disgusting."11

Images of sexuality on television provide knowledge about sexual expression to youth, which differs greatly from the mechanics of sex they may be learning in school, or from parents, peers, and books. These examples of sexual expression, whether "positive" or "negative," can become powerful role models to young people. Anecdotal evidence shows that young teenagers observe the actions of favorite teenage television characters and treat such actions as advice from friends. An example is the letter received from a teen fan by the producers of "Head of the Class," an ABC situation comedy during the 19881989 season:

Dear "Head of the Class,"

I've learned a lot from your show. Like, if I'm going to have sex, make sure I'm ready, and if I do have sex, be safe and use a condom. My parents have been trying to tell me that for at least a year and I didn't listen. Thanks to you, I've learned it's going to be safe sex or no sex at all! Thanks a lot.

Nikole

Because of teens' high levels of media consumption and its compelling nature, the media will remain an influence and a part of adolescents' lives and will continue to fill a different role than other sex educators. Pediatricians and other adults can take positive steps to recognize the media's role and to counteract its potentially "negative" effects - as well as underscore the positive effects - on adolescents' perceptions and understanding of sexual behavior and expression. As new kinds of media (interactive video, virtual reality games, and expanded cable options), including those that are more sexually explicit, become more accessible to adolescents at younger ages,12 adults must be prepared to take a proactive stand.

INFLUENCING DEPICTIONS OF SEXUALITY IN THE MEDIA

The Media Project: Working Within the Entertainment Industry

For more than 10 years, Advocates for Youth (formerly the Center for Population Options) has worked within the entertainment industry to encourage and support positive portrayals of sexuality in the media. By sponsoring educational seminars, an annual competitive awards program, and free technical assistance on sexuality issues when requested by producers and writers, the Media Project has been able to promote the importance of depicting these issues honestly.

Talking Back to Television

Many viewers are surprised to learn how responsive producers, network executives, and advertisers are to positive feedback. Religious organizations blanket networks and their advertisers with protests when they find an offensive program or storyline. Often these targeted programs discuss birth control or other sexuality topics in honest, responsible terms. The very programs that physicians might recognize as helping viewers make healthy decisions about their own lives are under attack.

Without a fistful of letters supporting such responsible programs, producers continue to have a difficult time getting these issues on the air. These letters make a significant difference and can be a contributing factor in ensuring that positive sexuality portrayals remain on television. Network addresses appear in Table 1.

DISCUSSING MESSAGES ONE^ON-ONE: USING TEACHABLE MOMENTS

Television's role as a sexuality educator can be shaped by adults who help young viewers analyze and critically view the messages they receive. Rather than consider television an adversary in efforts to educate children about sexuality and other topics, it can be used as an ally.13 Strategies for the pediatrician to use television as a communication tool are given for use in discussions with young patients, their parents, and in the pediatrician's own home.

Communication With Patients

Table 2 shows popular television programs among youth aged 2 to 11 and 12 to 17 based on 1993-1994 Nielsen data. A pediatrician can refer to the list before talking to a patient to find out which shows are favorites. Then the pediatrician should make a commitment to watch (or tape) one of these shows each week. By taping the show and fast-forwarding through the commercials, watching a half-hour sitcom will only take 23 minutes a week. After a few weeks, the pediatrician will have enough information about characters and storylines to start asking some openended questions (Table 3) to explore further issues of concern.

Table

TABLE 2Top Prime-Time Network TV Programs*

TABLE 2

Top Prime-Time Network TV Programs*

Conversations about sexuality should be appropriate to the child's developmental level. Ageappropriate topics include:

* ages 3 to 6 years: sex roles and family configuration,

* ages 7 to 10 years: body image, clothing, and hairstyles,

* ages 11 to 13: expression of feelings and emotions, and

* ages 14 to 17: sexual behaviors and their consequences, such as pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and emotional responses.14

Counseling With Parents

Beginning as early as the 12-month check-up, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians urge parents to limit their children's television viewing to no more than 1 to 2 hours per day, that they monitor the shows their children watch, and that they watch and discuss shows with them.15 Other clinical situations (obesity, poor school performance, or excessive aggression) may require a closer monitoring of television habits and a stronger suggestion of curtailment.

Table

TABLE 3Sample Open-Ended Questions to Start Dialogue With Young People About Television Messages*

TABLE 3

Sample Open-Ended Questions to Start Dialogue With Young People About Television Messages*

Parents also may require assistance in implementing these suggestions. For example, the temptation to use television as an electronic babysitter can be strong, especially for working parents at the end of the day. One suggestion is to have a collection of prerecorded videotapes that are appropriate viewing. Breaking the television habit can be difficult, especially when parents are just as guilty of using television as "background." Pediatricians can make available lists of suggested books or pamphlets that address these topics and are "parent friendly." A list of such books and pamphlets is provided at the end of this article.

Co- Viewing: The Parent's Role

Watching television with children allows the parent to interpret messages, clarify personal values, and provide facts about health, sexuality, and relationships. The following pointers can help the parent make television a conversation starter.

* Address both positive and negative messages. Avoid lecturing, as children will protest constant criticism of programs they enjoy. Instead, transform a negative message into a positive discussion by asking children their views via open-ended questions (Table 3).

* Express personal opinions. Children need to know their parents' bottom line as they begin to form their own views.

* Be selective about who else is present. Young people may feel embarrassed by discussions in front of their friends or other adults.

* Don't expect a sudden burst of insight. Even if a thoughtful response is not provided, critical thinking skills are being nurtured.14,15

CONCLUSION

The media will continue to play a role as sexuality educators of young people, even if sexuality education in the schools or from parents improves dramatically. As pediatricians, the influence of the media on adolescents and children needs to be recognized, and actions should be taken to vocalize support for positive sexuality images and to assist young people in the healthy interpretation of sexuality messages.

REFERENCES

1. Greenberg BS, Ku L, Li H. Young people ami Aar orientation to the mass media: an international study. East Lansing, Mich: Michigan State University, l")ept of Telecommunications; 1989. Michigan State Department of Telecommunications Study *2.

2. Klein JD, Brown JD. Childcrs KW, Oliver) J, Porter C, Dykers C. Adolescents' risky behavior and mass media use. Pediatrics. 1993;92:24-31.

3. Strasburger VC. When parents ask about the influence of TV on their kids. Contemporary Pediatrics. 1985;1:18-30.

4. Grcenberg BS. Race differences in television and movie behaviors. In: Greenberg BS, Brown JD, Buerkel-Rothfuss NL, eds. Media, Sex and the Adolescent. Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press; 199V

5. Louis Harris and Associates. Sexual Material on American Netunrfc Television During the 1987-1988 Season, a Study /or Planned Parenthood Federation of America. New York, NY:Planned Parenthood Federation of America Ine; 1988.

6. Greenberg BS. Content trends in media sex. In: Media, Children and the Family: Social. Scientific. Psychodwamic, and Clinical Perspectives. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence F.rlhalimAssociates;'l993":l65-l82.

7. Greenberg BS, Linsangan R, Soderman A. Adolescents' reactions to television sex. In: Gteenberg BS, Bniwn JD, Buerkel-Rothfuss NL, eds. Media, Sex and the Adolescent. Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press; 199}.

8. Louis Harris and Associates. American Teens Speak: Sex Myths, TV, and Birth Control, A Poll Conducted for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. New York, NY: Planned Parenthood Federation of America Ine; 1986.

9. Comstock GA, Runenstein. Television and Social Behavior. Washington, DC: US Dept of Health. Education, and Welfare. 1972: publication HSM 72-9060.

10. Walsh-Childers K, Bniwn JD. Adolescents' acceptance of sex-role stereotypes and television viewing. In: Greenberg BS, Bniwn JD, Buerkel-Rothfuss NL, eds. Media, Sex and the Adolescent. Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press; 1993: 1 17-133.

11. Brown JD, Schulze S. The effects of race, gender, and fandom on authence interpretation of Madonna's music video. In: Greenberg BS, Bniwn JD, BuerkelRothfuss NL, eds. Media, Sex and the Adolescent. Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press; 1993: 264-276.

12. Bniwn JD, Greenberg BS, Buerkel-Rothfuss NL. Mass media, sex and sexuality. In: Strasburger VC, Gimstock GA, eds. Adolescent Medicine: State of the Art Reviews: Adolescents and the Media. 1993;4:521-522.

13. Advocates for Youth. Talking With TV: A Guide to Starting Dialogue With Youth. Washington, DC: Advocates for Youth; 1993.

14. Garrity J. Teachable moments: using media to teach responsibility and caring. Media and Values. 1989;46:17.

15. American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Communications. Children, adolescents, and television. Pediatrics. 1990;85:1119-1120.

SUGGESTED READING

Advocan* for Youth. Talking With TV: A Guide to Stoning Dialogue With Youth. Washington, DC: Advocates for Youth: 1994.

Jures A. TV - Becoming Ungated: A Guide to Improve Children's TV Hahits. San Marcos, Calif: Robert Erdmann Publishing; 1992.

Lieben RM, Sprafkin J. The Early Window - Effects of Television on Children and Youth. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Pergamon Press; 1988.

Schräg RL. Taming the Wild Tube: A Family's Guide to Television and Video. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press; 1990.

Singer DG, Singer J, Zuckennan DM. Use TV to Your Child's Advantage. Reston, Va: Acropolis ftxiks; 1990.

Strasburger VC. Getting Your Kids to Sav No in the 90s When You Said Yes in the 60s . New York. NY: Fireside; 1993.

Winn M. Unplugging the Plug-in Drug. Help Your Child Kick the TV Hahit. New York, NY: Viking; 1987.

TABLE 1

Broadcast Network Station Addresses *f

TABLE 2

Top Prime-Time Network TV Programs*

TABLE 3

Sample Open-Ended Questions to Start Dialogue With Young People About Television Messages*

10.3928/0090-4481-19950201-06

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