Does TV Cause Teen Pregnancy?

I’ll be the first to admit that the quality of TV programming, especially network programs, leaves much to be desired. Critics of television have blamed TV for everything from violence to obesity. Now studies have shown that teens who watch sexy programs are more likely to become sexually active and to get pregnant. I’m not so sure that these studies really show what TV critics think they show. My local newspaper was equally skeptical.

We frequently criticize media coverage of scientific issues, so for once I’d like to offers kudos to the Tacoma News Tribune for publishing this editorial:

TV and teen pregnancy: A lot else is also at work
Published: November 5th, 2008 12:30 AM

For parents, the headline was ominous: “Study links TV, teen pregnancy.”
The article that appeared in The News Tribune Tuesday reported on a Rand Corp. study published in this month’s issue of Pediatrics magazine. Researchers say they found a link between higher teen pregnancy rates and watching television shows that have lots of sexual dialogue and behavior – ones like “Sex in the City, “That ‘70s Show” and “Friends.”
The implication is that if teens watch such racy programming, they’re more likely to become sexually active themselves – and therefore more at risk of getting pregnant or impregnating someone else.
But couldn’t something else also be at work here?
Couldn’t teens who are more inclined toward sexual activity choose to watch shows with more sex in them? Perhaps parents who don’t exert much discipline over their children’s viewing habits are less likely to ask where their children are going on a Saturday night or what they’re doing after school before the parents get home from work.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that teens who watch racy TV shows will get ideas they otherwise might not have. But teens were getting “in trouble” long before television was around.
And how do the researchers explain the fact that teen pregnancy rates declined for 15 years until a slight rise in 2006 – a rise experts say could just be a statistical hiccup? During those 15 years, TV shows got more sexually charged, not less.
It’s far too simplistic to blame TV for teen pregnancy when so many factors in society are work. It’s probably safe to say that even if every TV in America suddenly stopped working, teenagers would still get pregnant.
The best thing parents can do to prevent teen pregnancy is to talk to their children about sex and be involved with their lives. That way TV programs and other forms of popular media won’t be the only ones giving kids messages about sex.

Studies like these are problematic. It’s hard to quantify the amount of sexual content, much less how favorably it is presented. It’s hard to know how individual kids react to the depictions – I can imagine my fashion-conscious daughter watching a show like “Sex and the City” to ooh and aah over the dresses and the Manolo Blahnik shoes but thinking “Yuck! Why does she have to be such a slut?” during the sex scenes.

If there were no TV, kids would find out about sex through romance novels, porn, peers, and the Internet. If adults attempt to restrict exposure, that just creates attractive forbidden fruit. There’s something to be said for sexuality being out in the open, for giving kids information sooner rather than later. I think censorship is generally counterproductive. The Catholic Church used to put forbidden books on an Index, and parishioners rushed to read them. Sales of Lady Chatterly’s Lover thrived on the publicity over the obscenity trials.

Do children become violent because they watch violent programs, or are they more likely to watch violent programs because they already have violent tendencies? Is it possible that some children tempted by sex or violence could get vicarious thrills from TV and be less likely to act out in person?

There is something about TV programming that worries me more than sex and violence. What about all the shows that eschew critical thinking and promote belief in things like ghosts, talking to the dead, psychics, creating your own reality, and pseudoscientific tommyrot? What about documentaries like the one that spent most of an hour hyping the quack healer John of God and only devoted a couple of out-of-context sound bites to the skeptics?

TV isn’t all bad. I’ve been amazed at the variety of knowledge my children have picked up from television. When my daughter was 3 or 4 she asked me if I had licked the blood off her when she was born. She’d seen a doe licking a newborn fawn on TV. I matter-of-factly told her the nurse had cleaned her with a towel. She wasn’t upset and I wasn’t upset that she’d learned about the birth process and the fact that it was accompanied by blood.

How should sex on television be regulated? Should we go back to the “one foot on the floor” rule? A recent PBS Masterpiece presentation “Filth” depicted the true story of a British woman who tried to ban indecency from British television. She’s so clueless that she has never heard of oral sex, and at one point her husband has to advise her to change her slogan “Clean Up National Television” to something with less suggestive initials. What would happen if we had only sex-free, bowdlerized television programming? My guess is that the teen pregnancy rate would not only not fall but might rise.

Correlation isn’t causation. Studies like these can’t control for all the confounding variables. One recent study showed that unhappy people spend more time watching TV. Can you compare a well-adjusted teen with a supportive family who watches a sexy program and discusses it with her parents to an impressionable latchkey child who is surrounded by teenage mothers and dysfunctional adults and is looking for love in all the wrong places? I think the News Tribune editorial got it right: if we want to reduce teen pregnancies we should be more concerned about good parenting than about the content of TV shows.

Posted in: Science and the Media

Leave a Comment (18) ↓

18 thoughts on “Does TV Cause Teen Pregnancy?

  1. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    “And how do the researchers explain the fact that teen pregnancy rates declined for 15 years until a slight rise in 2006.. ”

    — Correlation is not necessarily causation. But in this case, it appears to not even correlate. The conclusion is a non-sequitur.

    “It’s probably safe to say that even if every TV in America suddenly stopped working, teenagers would still get pregnant.”

    — Possibly more as they wouldn’t be home watching their shows.

  2. I cannot stop giggling over “Clean Up National Television,” and I think I will be making myself a t-shirt bearing that slogan. The epic fail is so very epic!

  3. When I saw the name of this post, I thought, “well duh. TV is so boring that when a teenage boy and girl watch it together they get, like, distracted and start doing more fun stuff.” So maybe correlation IS causation.

    Then I read the post and noticed that Harriet, always the astute social interpreter, had already thought of that:

    “What would happen if we had only sex-free, bowdlerized television programming? My guess is that the teen pregnancy rate would not only not fall but might rise.”

    My favorite slogan: Don’t Invade Children’s Knickers

  4. Calli Arcale says:

    *laughs* It makes me think of the Red Dwarf episode “Polymorph” where everybody got an emotion sucked out of them by a genetically engineered life form. Rimmer lost his anger and became a total peacenik, wanting to defeat the creature through nonviolent protest. He proposed the following name for their group:

    “Committee for the Liberation and Integration of Terrifying Organisms and their Rehabilitation Into Society. One minor problem with that: the abbreviation is CLITORIS.”


  5. Society for the Haughty Limitation Of Naughty Gawking

    Program to Reject Insults to Civilized Keratoses

    Social Network Against Televised Canine Homoeroticism

    Butts Oughtn’t be Xerox’d

    Peaking at Undergarments Should Scare You

    We Implore the Law to Limit Yonis

    Congressional Office for the Curtailment of Kinkiness

    Note: KA denies any association with the above organizations and slogans, especially the ones that you find particularly in poor taste. He is merely reporting what’s out there.

  6. Claire says:

    I wonder if many people know that, according to a now deceased politician, we Irish were reproducing asexually before television?

    “Although the show began as a light summer “filler” in 1962, it soon became a forum for controversial opinion and debate. Topics such as divorce, contraception and a number of hitherto undiscussed areas were now being debated openly on television. Politician Oliver J. Flanagan, when a guest on the show, claimed that there was “no sex in Ireland before television,” ”


  7. DLC says:

    Movies used to take the blame for teenage sexual behavior.
    Now it’s Television. I suppose the ancient Greeks would have blamed theater ?

    I’m glad to see a news organization printing something like that, though.

  8. ama says:

    Children do, what they see. They imitate. That is the first, the easiest and the fastest way to survive. It is a matter of evolution.

    What will children do, if they day for day see uncounted persons be killed, the murderers enjoy they psychopathic madnesses, and all kinds of sexual stuff of whore-house level are shown DONE BY CHILDREN?

    Children will do what evolution made them for: imitate.

    “Nomen est abdomen.”

    And do not forget:


  9. Jurjen S. says:

    The problem with your assertions is, ama, that while it may all very much “stand to reason” that things would be so, when you look at the actual evidence, the facts simply don’t support your assertions.

    As has been noted by other posters, the teenage pregnancy rate has actually declined even as sexually titillating material on television has increased, and similarly, the number of casualties from school shootings have actually been dropping over a similar period as well, despite the increasing amount of media attention given to such incidents.

    So evidently, “monkey see, monkey do” is simply not an accurate description of what’s happening, despite what “Freies Bremerhaven” might claim (yes, I speak enough German to understand that page).

  10. ama says:

    >As has been noted by other posters, the teenage
    >pregnancy rate has actually declined even as sexually
    >titillating material on television has increased, and
    >similarly, the number of casualties from school
    >shootings have actually been dropping over a similar
    >period as well, despite the increasing amount of media
    >attention given to such incidents.

    The critical words are:
    – declined
    – dropped

    Declined since when? Dropped since when? Declined/dropped how much?

    The figures sank because the had risen before.

    But they should not have risen. THAT is the point.

  11. Fifi says:

    Um, doesn’t being a teenager explain teenage sexual behavior?And it would appear the problem isn’t sex per se but irresponsible, unsafe sex if teenagers are getting pregnant.

    The other bogeyman regularly trotted out is music – in the 20s it was jazz that was considered pure distilled evil (it had the added benefit of being associated with “animalistic” Black people and perceived sexual exoticness), swing (once rebellious music), rock and roll, soul/funk/hip hop and techno. Of course, “teenagers” are really more of a marketing demographic that emerged during the 50s since before that “teenagers” didn’t exist in quite the same way contextually or conceptually as they do now.* It had to do with social affluence (as did many ideas about the role of women that emerged during the 50s). The young people rebelling to jazz weren’t really “teenagers”, they were the “lost generation” in their early 20s.

    Anyway, isn’t it time society stopped demonizing something that is entirely natural? Really, if it’s safe and consensual sex between same age teenagers who have had the opportunity to learn about sex and the emotional repercussions, what’s the big deal? And is it ALL sex that is meant to be “wrong” or just penetrative vaginal sex that can result in pregnancy that is wrong?

    *the concept of childhood that we now hold is also a result of social affluence and emerged during the Victorian era.

  12. Fifi says:

    It’s worth remembering that Tipper Gore (wife to Al Gore) was at the forefront of blaming the music industry for teenagers being teenagers in the US. One really doesn’t have to look over the UK to find repressive and silly attempts to sanitize the world to save children’s souls from the devil – the US really is a leader in this arena. Nipplegate would be a more recent example of the same kind of hysteria over the natural functioning of the human body and the human body in general.

  13. Forbid Unrestricted Carnal Knowledge

  14. ama says:

    >Um, doesn’t being a teenager explain teenage sexual

    Yes. But in the long history of mankind we somehow made a development to some kind of, say, civilization.

    Now falling back to simple biological basics is explainable, but nonetheless no good. Life based on THAT basis ended not by free will and in a very young age.

    Okay, some do want to live their biological freight, but evolution is NOT only the biological part, but the environment (and this includes the herd) becomes the driving factor the higher the evolutionary level of ths species gets.

  15. Fifi says:

    Dr Atwood – Well it makes people much more controllable if you teach them their natural desires are evil (aka they are innately evil), make them feeling ashamed and guilty, then offer them salvation and the chance to get some if, and only if, they get married!

  16. As the parent of a kindergarten-aged kid with Asperger’s syndrome, I’m beginning to see the merits of parentally forbidding all sexual contact until marriage. He discovered self-pleasuring early in life, and I am having a HECK of a time explaining to him why he should under NO CIRCUMSTANCES try to touch a little girl’s vagina. o.O

    Parenting = Headaches you never ever ever anticipated.

Comments are closed.