The Washington Post announced an important new study from the respected Rand Corporation on its front page on Nov. 3. Teenagers who watch a lot of television featuring sex talk and sex scenes are much more likely than their peers to get pregnant or get a partner pregnant, according to the first study to directly link television programming to teen pregnancy.
The study was published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. It tracked more than 700 12-to-17-year-olds for three years, and found that those who viewed the most sexual content on TV were about twice as likely to be involved in a pregnancy as those who saw the least. About 25 percent of those who watched the most were involved in a pregnancy, compared with about 12 percent of those who watched the least. The researchers took into account other factors such as having only one parent, wanting to have a baby and engaging in other risky behaviors.
"Sexual content on television has doubled in the last few years, especially during the period of our research," said Rand researcher Anita Chandra, author of the study. "Watching this kind of sexual content on television is a powerful factor in increasing the likelihood of a teen pregnancy. We found a strong association."
Unfortunately, like so many nonpartisan researchers, Chandra rushed to insist that she is not moralizing. She suggested the problem wasn't so much that the amount of steamy TV, but that broadcasters fail to include un-sexy notions about the potentially negative consequences of sex, from sexually transmitted diseases to what Barack Obama inartfully called being "punished with a baby." All of this leaves the viewer with a rather rosy and unrealistic view of TV's quick "hook-ups."
The Rand researchers said the study showed there were important findings for broadcasters. "Broadcasters should be encouraged to include more realistic depictions of sex in scripts and to portray consequences such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases," they said.
Hollywood's been hearing this for years, and shows no sign of bending. Cigarette makers are forced to put a Surgeon General's warning about the dangers of smoking on every box. Pharmaceutical manufacturers have to list every conceivable side effect of their drugs. (Is there any medicine that doesn't cause possible nausea or headaches or blurry vision?) But television feels no need to offer warnings about its wild and swinging liaisons, because they aren't "selling" anything, therefore there can be no cause-and-effect consequences.
The Rand recommendation to broadcasters is something -- but falls short. What they should have pushed, but couldn't find the nerve to push, is the simple idea that broadcasters should stop promoting adult messages about sex to impressionable children.
The Rand team said parents should consider limiting their children's access to programming with sexual content and spending more time watching programs alongside their children so they can discuss the consequences of sex. That advice is sound, but again, only to a point. Parents ought not to have to devote themselves to discussing with their youngsters that which should be kept from them in order to protect their innocence.
Doctors are even urged to ask teenagers "about their media use," a concept that smacks of political correctness and dilutes the seriousness of the report.
Predictably, the knee-jerk defenders of anything-goes television have tried to dismiss these findings, mocking the idea that TV shows can lead to any kind of behavior. In an online chat at The Washington Post website, one questioner joked, "If I watch a steady TV diet of the three 'CSIs,' 'Law and Order,' 'Life on Mars,' 'Cold Case' and 'NYPD Blue' reruns, will I turn into a police detective?"
To which there's the obvious answer: Rand's researchers in no way tried to prove a drop-dead connection, that television causes pregnancy. They merely suggested the logical, that there is an association -- just as the people who advertise for the Olive Garden hope there's an association that leads more people to eat at their restaurants. Rand also suggested other media -- magazines, the Internet, certainly pop music -- have an effect as well.
Another Post chatterer more sensibly wrote, "Surely if we did a study of adults, we'd find that adults who watch shows about politics were also more politically active." There is no doubt that hormone-exploding teenaged viewers are going to find a sex scene interesting to watch, which is why Hollywood complies by producing so many of them.
Once again, the TV networks and their lobbyists have responded to Rand's research by insisting that no one can prove their deluge of sex scenes has any influence on any of our country's social problems. It is what one professes when he has nothing with which to defend himself.