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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

TV makes teens pregnant...Again

Forget about the election, there’s real news to be made: For the umpteenth time, researchers have concluded that watching too much (popular) TV leads to unwanted teen pregnancies. The study conducted by RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization, and published in the November issue of the journal Pediatrics suggests that sexually active teens who watch popular programs laced with sexual innuendo are about twice as likely as those who don't to get pregnant or get a partner pregnant. Finally, a real reason to hate Friends, aside from the fact that it was never as good as Seinfeld.

Now, as someone who has herself conducted longitudinal studies on the associations between TV viewing habits and the sexual conduct of youth (FYI: for those not in the academic know, “teen” is out; “youth” is in,) I am neither surprised nor entirely convinced by the study’s findings. On the one hand, yes, a finding is a finding is a finding. But only up to a certain point.

RAND’s data was based on phone interviews with 12-17 year olds, both girls and boys, over the course of a three year period. The youth were questioned on their sexual and television viewing habits, including how often they watched 20+ popular TV shows that were found to contain lots of sexual or suggestive content. Which leads me to problem #1: RAND’s qualifications for “sexual content” are solely based on visible sexual behaviors like kissing, touching, sexual intercourse, etc…, that were then quantified. This leaves out other heteronormative behaviors specific to dating, coupling and sexual behaviors like flirting and pressure tactics, which may also indirectly influence viewers’ real life behaviors. Which brings me to problem #2: RAND’s findings were drawn from those youth that were already sexually active. The RAND study focused only on unwanted teen pregnancy and was not intent on proving any correlation between sexual activity and TV viewing habits. In other words, the youth mentioned in the study were already engaging in risky sexual behaviors with or without the influence of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and the other one. The problem, then, would have to be one of information. Or dare I say, the lack there of.

The US’s high rates of teen pregnancy are more in line with a sexually illiterate populous than a TV crazed one. Take for example teen pregnancy rates in other Western countries, like Canada (this Green Card holder’s native land) that have access to the same crappy television programming offered in the US. You’ll find that per capita, Canada’s teen pregnancy rates are staggeringly lower than their once-cool-again, or Obamafied, neighbors. And, at least where the Prairies are concerned, there’s not much else to do but watch Buffy re-runs (did I mention this Green Card holder is also a snobby ex-Montrealer? Sorry Saskatoon.) Maybe if studies focused more on what youth know or don’t know about sexuality, rather than how many hours a day they sat in front of the TV, we’d see some real change.

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