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J Adolesc Health Care. 1990 Jan;11(1):62-70.

Television and adolescent sexuality.

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Center for Research in Journalism and Mass Communication, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.


Existing studies of the sexual content of television programming and advertising and the effects of this content on adolescent viewers are reviewed. Content studies show that the frequency of sexual references have increased in the past decade and are increasingly explicit. Studies of the effects of this content, while scarce, suggest that adolescents who rely heavily on television for information about sexuality will have high standards of female beauty and will believe that premarital and extramarital intercourse with multiple partners is acceptable. They are unlikely to learn about the need for contraceptives as a form of protection against pregnancy or disease. Suggestions for future research and trends in television programming policies are explored.


US television's effects on 2 broad areas of sexuality: 1)sexual beauty standards; and 2) sexual activity, including sexual intercourse are focused on. Physical attractiveness and thinness are often emphasized in television advertising and programming. The current attractiveness standard on television and in magazines is the slimmest since the 1920s. Commercials often use sexual attractiveness to sell products. Advertising has become much more explicit. References to and depictions of sex activity have gone up in the last 10 years. An average adolescent television viewer watched between 1900 and 2400 sexual references on television in 1985. The average rate of the frequency of sexual acts and references of R-rated movies is 7 times higher than prime-time commercial television. Television can have a powerful effect on adolescents' sex beliefs, especially beliefs about marital fidelity, marital stability, and female sexuality. The few studies done indicate that teenagers who get most of their information about sexuality from television will have higher criteria for female beauty and will accept the idea of premarital sex and extramarital intercourse with one or more partners. Content analyses should be continued to see how models of sexual attractiveness are used by students. Research needs to be done on the idea that women are often shown as sex objects available for men's pleasure. How sexual encounters are initiated should be researched. Content analyses should consider the consequences and context of sexuality that is televised. All adolescents do not interpret what they see in the same way. Subsequent behavior is based on the adolescents' content perception. Experimental studies are needed to set up causal sequence. Longitudinal studies are needed to set up to what extent these effects last and are "generalizable." Each of the 3 television networks had a "censor" board. But, they would not let condoms or other contraceptives be advertised. However, the networks now have a lot of competition. Some think this will loosen network standards and encourage more explicitness. However, portrayals of sexuality on television are now also becoming more responsible, with public service messages on safe sex.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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