CHICAGO - Ground-breaking research suggests that pregnancy rates are much higher among teens who watch a lot of TV with sexual dialogue and behaviour compared with those who have tamer viewing tastes.
The study is the first to link those viewing habits with teen pregnancy, said lead author Anita Chandra, a Rand behavioural scientist. Teens who watched the raciest shows were twice as likely to become pregnant over the next three years as those who watched few such programmes.
Shows that highlight only the positive aspects of sexual behaviour without the risks can lead teens to have unprotected sex "before they're ready to make responsible and informed decisions", Dr Chandra said.
The study was released yesterday in the November issue of Pediatrics. It involved 2003 12- to 17-year-old US girls and boys questioned about their TV viewing habits in 2001. Teens were re-interviewed twice, the last time in 2004, and asked about pregnancy. Among girls, 58 became pregnant during the follow-up, and among boys, 33 said they had got a girl pregnant.
Participants were asked how often they watched any of more than 20 TV shows popular among teens at the time or which were found to have lots of sexual content. These included Sex and the City, That 70s Show and Friends.
Pregnancies were twice as common among those who said they watched such shows regularly, compared with teens who said they hardly ever saw them. There were more pregnancies among the oldest teens interviewed, but the rate of pregnancy remained consistent across all age groups.
Dr Chandra said TV-watching was strongly linked with teen pregnancy even when other factors were considered, including grades and parents' education level.
But the study did not adequately address other issues, such as self-esteem, family values and income, contends Elizabeth Schroeder, executive director of Answer, a Rutgers University-based teen sex education programme. "The media do have an impact but we don't know the full extent of it because there are so many other factors," Dr Schroeder said.
US teen pregnancies were on a 15-year decline until a 3 per cent rise in 2006, the latest data available. Experts think that could be just be a statistical blip.
Psychologist David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family, cited data suggesting only about 19 per cent of American teens say they can talk openly with a trusted adult about sex.
With many schools not offering sex education, that leaves the media to serve as sex educators, he said.
He said the message to parents is to talk to their kids about sex before children are teens. Parents also should be watching what their kids watch.
American Academy of Pediatrics: www.aap.org