Thursday, November 20, 2008


Carrie Bradshaw might get you pregnant

Or maybe it’s Samantha Jones; we can’t be sure.

Researchers have recently published a study that shows that teens who watch TV shows with sexual content are more likely to become involved in a pregnancy. The Washington Post seems to do a good job of summarizing the study; unfortunately, the full article at the American Academy of Pediatrics is behind a pay-wall.

From the AAP:


For the first time, a new study links teen exposure to sexual content on television with pregnancy. In “Does Watching Sex on Television Predict Teen Pregnancy? Findings from a National Longitudinal Survey of Youth,” researchers used data from a national survey of teens, ages 12 to 17, to assess whether exposure to television sexual content predicted subsequent pregnancy (girls), or responsibility for pregnancy (boys) over a three-year period. Teens exposed to high levels of televised sexual content (in the 90th percentile) were twice as likely to experience a pregnancy during the three-year period, compared to teens with lower levels of exposure (10th percentile). Limiting teen exposure to sex in the media and balancing portrayals of sex with information about possible negative consequences might reduce the risk of teen pregnancy, according to the study authors.

Here’s what the WaPo reports:

Chandra and her colleagues surveyed more than 2,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 three times by telephone from 2001 to 2004 to gather information about a variety of behavioral and demographic factors, including television viewing habits. Based on a detailed analysis of the sexual content of 23 shows in the 2000-2001 TV season, the researchers calculated how often the teens saw characters kissing, touching, having sex, and discussing past or future sexual activity.

Among the 718 youths who reported being sexually active during the study, the likelihood of getting pregnant or getting someone else pregnant increased steadily with the amount of sexual content they watched on TV, the researchers found. About 25 percent of those who watched the most were involved in a pregnancy, compared with about 12 percent of those who watched the least. The researchers took into account other factors such as having only one parent, wanting to have a baby and engaging in other risky behaviors.

Fifty-eight girls reported getting pregnant and 33 boys reported being responsible for getting a girl pregnant during the study period. The increased risk emerged regardless of whether teens watched only one or two shows that were explicit or surfed many shows that had occasional sexual content, Chandra said.

If you’ve read some of my other complaints about survey-based studies, you’ll know what my complaint about this one is: they have shown correlation, but not causality.

It’s entirely likely that teens who are inclined to be sexually active are also inclined to want to watch TV shows that talk about or depict sex. Inversely, teens who would prefer not to have sex are likely to be more put off by titillating TV.

It’s not just me, of course:

Several experts questioned whether the study had established a causal relationship.

“It may be the kids who have an interest in sex watch shows with sexual content,” said Laura Lindberg of the Guttmacher Institute. “I’m concerned this makes it seem like if we just shut off the TV we’d dramatically reduce the teen pregnancy rate.”

And that is exactly the problem with these sorts of studies. It’s not that they have no value; they certainly do. It’s that they lead to silly conclusions and unwise decisions — often to unwise public policy. These sorts of studies should be used as ticklers for further study. They uncover correlations that can be further explored, but they do not uncover “truths”.

And then there’s this odd recommendation, which makes me wonder about the genesis and funding sources of this study:

Programmers should also include more-realistic portrayals of the risks of sex, such as sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, the researchers said.
Hm. Do we really think we want more TV shows depicting pregnant teenagers and teens with STDs? Somehow, I think not. And imagine how silly something like Sex and the City would have been if the 30-something ladies kept warning Samantha that she was going to get the clap if she didn’t take precautions.

One could do a better-controlled study like this, but it’d be hard: it would mean controlling what the kids watched on TV (and perhaps making them watch things they don’t want to), so it’s not clear how well it would work out, really. But they’d be volunteering.

Here’s (roughly) what I’d do:

  1. Get a bunch of volunteers and have them fill out questionnaires. Do not, of course, tell them what you’re researching.
  2. Based on the questionnaire, divide them into several groups of similar composition — each group has the same balance of religious kids, kids with a single parent, kids raised by wolves, and so on.
  3. Assign a slate of TV watching to each group. You must watch the programs in your group’s list to the best of your schedule/ability. You must avoid other TV as much as you can.
  4. Interview them periodically, and adjust the TV schedule, keeping the sexual content approximately constant.
It’d be tough to keep that up for three years, but that might give you some valid conclusions about causality. It might give you a better idea of whether it’s watching TV programs that relates to behaviour... or the inclination to watch that does.

1 comment:

Josh said...

Bravo! It irritates me mightily how easily most people (1) give authority to anything that have the words "study" or "scientific poll" in them and (2) so easily take the scope of it wayyyy past its capability. Causal relationships are much harder to demonstrate conclusively. I recommend "Here be dragons" from Brian Dunning for a great video that goes into this a bit.

Josh Nankivel