Culture Challenge of the Week: Movies "Selling" Sex to Children
Can you name the last five movies your teenage son or daughter has watched with friends? How strong was the sexual content in those movies?
And does it really matter?
New research suggests that it does. The study, conducted by Dr. Ross O'Hara and soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science, found that promiscuity on-screen promotes promiscuity in real life. "Adolescents who are exposed to more sexual content in movies start having sex at younger ages, have more sexual partners," and engage in riskier sexual activities says Dr. O'Hara.
While at Dartmouth University, Dr. O'Hara (now a researcher at the University of Missouri) and his team analyzed the movie-watching patterns of about 1,200 young teens, ages 12-14. Researchers next analyzed the teens' sexual behavior six years later, considering the age at which they became sexually active, their number of partners, and the riskiness of their sexual activity, including whether or not they used contraceptives.
The result: bad news. Young teens who viewed movies with sexual content were profoundly influenced by what they watched. They initiated sexual behavior earlier than their peers who viewed less sexual content, and tended to imitate the on-screen sexual behaviors they saw-which included casual sex, multiple partners, and high-risk behaviors.
It's not surprising, really. Teens crave information about sex--and too often turn to the media for information. Moreover, adolescent hormones operate in overdrive and teens are naturally more sensitive to sexual stimulation. Less likely to delay gratification, teens are more likely to be impulsive and think themselves impervious to harm. The combination, researchers say, means that "sensation seeking, or the tendency to seek more novel and intense sexual stimulation" increases in teens who "watched more movies with sexually explicit content."
So what should parents do?
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Dr. O'Hara sums it up well, saying, "This study, and its confluence with other work, strongly suggests that parents need to restrict their children from seeing sexual content in movies at young ages."
Agreed. But unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as checking a movie's rating. In fact, G-rated movies are part of the problem. The O'Hara study also analyzed the sexual content in 700 films, all top-grossing films from 1998-2004. Defining "sexual content" as anything from heavy kissing to actual sex scenes, researchers found sexual content in more than a third of the G-rated movies, more than half of PG-rated films, and four out of every five R-rated movies.
Short of prohibiting movies all together-an unwise and unworkable solution--there are some things a parent can do. First, use websites that provide specific information about movie content, rather than a reviewer's judgment about an appropriate viewing age.
Websites like Pluggedin.com and Movieguide provide not only specifics about movie content but also analysis from a Christian perspective. (PluggedIn offers reviews of music and gaming products as well.) Two straightforward secular sources are Screenit and Kids-in-mind-both provide valuable descriptions of specific movie content, including sexuality, violence, and language. One caution-a few websites, such as CommonSense Media, offer age-ratings to help guide parents. But organizations which lean left, as CommonSense Media does, or are tied in tightly with entertainment industry folks, can't be relied on by parents who want to raise children with traditional values. The Parent's Television Council at www.ParentsTV.org is an excellent resource for information on the content of popular TV shows and offers great movie reviews.
Second, talk with your children about sex. While sex won't be a casual dinnertime conversation topic, you need to create private time with your teens to explore their feelings and questions about sex. If we're silent, our teens will learn about sex from friends and the movies-a route that's sure to normalize sexual risk-taking.
Third, stay in the loop. Talk with other parents and get to know your teen's friends. Realize that at some point your child probably will see something too sexually explicit, whether at a friend's house or on a computer. Keep the conversations going and remind your teens that Hollywood is a world without consequences.
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