Teens really are doing it less, and being safer about it. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, a little less than half of all high school students in 2007 said they’d gone all the way, down from 54 percent in 1991. And 62 percent used a condom, compared to only 57 percent in 1997.
So what makes people think it’s a Teens Gone Wild world? The media are one culprit, says University of Florida journalism professor Kim B. Walsh-Childers. She studies media effects on adolescent sexual attitudes and behavior, and co-edited the book “Sexual Teens, Sexual Media.”
“It breeds an image … that not only are they out there attacking all things that walk, but that they are totally emotionless about it. I think that’s not entirely true.”
Research is clear that TV influences teen attitudes about sex. Studies show that three-quarters of teens say sex on TV influences the sexual behavior of kids their age. Meanwhile, a Rand Corp. survey found that teens who viewed lots of sexual content were twice as likely to initiate sexual intercourse.
And sexual content there is: Another Kaiser study in 2005 found that 70 percent of all shows contained sexual talk or behavior. With so much of it out there, teens and adults alike may have a skewed notion of just how much sex is going on in real life, Walsh-Childers said.
“People who watch a lot of TV will tend to overestimate, for example, the percentage of people who have extramarital affairs,” she said. “The joke is not that married people don’t have sex, but that they just don’t have it with each other.”
Of course, it doesn’t help adults’ views when today’s teens appear to be more narcissistic, baring their souls and more online and via texting (and sexting). But some of that may get more media attention than it deserves, further skewing things, Walsh-Childers added.
Besides, “if kids have started acting sexy, all we have to do is look at advertising,” she said. “We start telling them when they are prepubescent that it’s a good thing to look sexy … like selling thong underwear for 10-year-old girls.”
But don’t expect things to get toned down in the TV ratings game.
“Let’s be honest, the grand struggles over downloading songs to an iPod or which phone you might get, there’s not as much interest in.”