But Everybody’s Doing It

Breaking news: A study, published in the journal Pediatrics, shows that the more sexual content teenagers watch on television, the earlier they'll become sexually active. No surprise. Most of us knew that. After all, we've been complaining for years about sex on TV and its effect on kids. But this time there are a couple of new and important twists to the story. First, according to its authors, this study carefully controlled for other factors that might have influenced teen sexual activity. Previous studies had shown more sexual activity among teens who viewed more sexual content, but they could not demonstrate, as this does, an actual cause-and-effect relationship. Second, the researchers discovered, "Exposure to TV that included only talk about sex was associated with the same risks as exposure to TV that depicted sexual behavior." This is significant, mainly because of the reason behind it. As the study explains, "TV may create the illusion that sex is more central to daily life than it truly is and may promote sexual initiation as a result, a process known as media cultivation. . . . Social learning theory posits that information is gleaned from what others say about a behavior as well as what they do, because both indicate social approval or disapproval of the activity in question." It sounds very much like the old adage "everybody's doing it" that all parents know so well. But this goes a little deeper. It's true that human beings take our cues about what to think and how to behave from the culture around us. The trouble is that our culture now has very few moral restraints. Fewer families and schools are teaching that sex is anything more than a recreational activity to be engaged in "safely" -- like riding a motorcycle. And even many churches, I believe, are falling down on the job. Without clear moral standards and careful guidance, teens are left with only the vaguest idea of what sex is really all about. Enter the media, which care far less about setting a good example than about reaping a profit. They know that "sex sells." So if you're fifteen or sixteen years old, and your main source of sexual information tells you that people are constantly either having sex or talking about having sex, why would you see any reason to hold out for something better? How would you even know that there is something better? Even when a TV character gets pregnant or catches a sexually transmitted disease, abstinence until marriage is very rarely presented as an option. The person usually goes right back out and repeats the behavior, only a little more carefully the next time. The authors of the study do not express much hope that the media will ever clean up their act. I'm not quite as pessimistic as that, because I think the media respond to pressure. It's going to take a lot of time, however, and effort by parents willing to say, "No, you can't watch that." And when the ratings start dropping, those shows go off the air. But until that day comes, parents and churches need to teach a standard of sexual restraint consistently, clearly, and often. If we don't want our kids thinking that "everybody does it," we have to teach them. No one else will. And we have to demonstrate through our words and examples that "everybody's doing it" is no longer "cool." For further reading and information: Collins, et al., "Watching Sex on Television Predicts Adolescent Initiation of Sexual Behavior," Pediatrics 114, No. 3, 3 September 2004. (Adobe Acrobat Reader required.) Michael Conlon, "Study Links TV to Teen Sexual Activity," Reuters, 7 September 2004. Brent Bozell, "Sex and the TV-watching teen,", 10 September 2004. Cassandra Spratling, "Abstinence: The strength to say no," Detroit Free Press, 27 August 2004. "Crackdown urged on sexual imagery," Telegraph (London), 7 September 2004. Kate O'Hare, "'7th Heaven' Sons Return to Tackle Sex and Parenthood,", 20 August 2004. Alessandra Stanley, "When Creators of 'Quality Television' Try the Opposite Approach," New York Times, 3 June 2004. (Archived articles; costs $2.95 to retrieve.) BreakPoint Commentary No. 040506, "With Friends Like These: A Not-So-Funny Legacy." "Health Appeals Not Appealing," Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, July 2004. (This study addresses what methods are and are not effective in encouraging abstinence among teens.) Robert E. Rector, et al., "Sexually Active Teenagers Are More Likely to Be Depressed and to Attempt Suicide," Heritage Foundation, 3 June 2003. Salynn Boyles, "Many Teens Want to Have Babies," WebMD, 23 July 2004. Anthony Esolen, "Our Peculiar Institution: the New Slavery," Crisis, 2 September 2004. Roberto Rivera, "Imaginary Day: The Slavery of Promiscuity," BreakPoint Online, 30 September 2004. Charles Colson, Answers to Your Kids' Questions (Tyndale, 2000).


Chuck Colson


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