Sex on TV getting your kids pregnant?

A new study by the RAND Corp suggests that watching television with high sexual content increases a teenager’s risk of pregnancy.

To determine this, they surveyed just over 2000 youths aged 12 to 17 years old via telephone in 2001 again 1 and 3 years later, in 2002 and 2004. They asked them if they’d been pregnant before (or gotten someone pregnant) and how frequently they watched certain television programs which contained high levels of sexual content.

First, they compared sexual content exposure and pregnancy directly – but the simple association between sexual content exposure and pregnancy (though positive) was not statistically significant. So they controlled for overall TV watching, and Voila! They found that exposure to sexual content increased likelihood of pregnancy.

Now, before you start calling the FCC and banning sex on TV, let me make a comment on one of my BIGGEST pet peeves in scientific research. IN NO WAY, SHAPE, OR FORM does this study actually show causation – that watching sexually explicit TV has a direct effect on pregnancy rates, as just about every article I’ve seen about it claims. While in their results they claim that “frequent exposure to sexual content on television predicts early pregnancy,” what they have actually shown is that kids who watch sex a lot also tend to getting pregnant more – that the two are correlated (which, because they had to correct for overall TV viewing time, is a weak correlation, at best).

The study also found that deviance or problem behavior, black race, and not living in a 2-parent family increased pregnancy risk. Isn’t it possible that some other factor or factors are leading to sexual behavior in general, including the increased frequency of watching sexual content? After all, kids who have sex probably better understand sexual humor and content, thus making shows portraying sexual behavior more appealing. It’s possible that poor parental boundaries, for example, allow kids to watch more television and bump uglies more often – or there’s some other totally unrelated cause to the two behaviors.

Also, the study only considered teens who had sex within the three year period. What about teens who watch the same programs but DON’T engage in sexual activity? To claim that “television plays a role in shaping adolescent reproductive health outcomes” you should include all the teens watching the shows, not just the ones getting frisky already. I think excluding these teens is a HUGE oversight.

I’m not saying that TV has no influence, or that the current cultural portrayal of sex is healthy for our youth. That’s irrelevant to my point. I’m just pissed that people claim causation when they actually have correlation. They are NOT the same thing. Causation, implied by the words “shaping” and “predicts,” means that one act has a direct affect on the other. But that’s not what they tested. They did not test if manipulating TV sexual exposure in teens made them have more sex/get pregnant more frequently (that study might cross some ethical boundaries). They tested if sexual activity were correlated with TV content – if they followed the same patterns. There are any number of reasons for this.

Let me phrase it another way. Let’s say that the larger a fire is, the more firemen will be fighting it. Similarly, the larger the fire, the more damage it causes. However, if a study looked at the number of firemen present and correlated this with the amount of damage done, they might find that the two are strongly correlated. Does that mean that firemen cause damage, and we should limit the number of firemen that can respond to a fire to minimize the damage caused? No – the two are simply both related to same root cause – the size of the fire. Correlation is not causation. Moreover, it is dangerous to assume causation, yet researchers do it so frivolously. Would you say that watching football causes men to drink beer?

What I’m trying to say is: don’t trust every headline you read. Does this study show a link between pregnancy and TV content? Yes, but it does not show that one causes the other. Especially because it only looked at sexually active teens – so TV content is not linked to sexual activity directly, just the odds of getting pregnant if your teenager is already doing it. I think this seems a fishy correlation at best, unless someone can show that watching sex on television decreases the use of contraceptives or something like that. More likely, teens who watch a lot of television are doing so for reasons like they have less parental supervision, no extra curricular activities, or are simply bored – all good reasons they might decide to go get laid, if they can.

I just want to clarify: I’m not arguing that our current programming is a healthy, proper portrayal of sex for teens. I’m merely saying that to say this study showed any bit of causation is bad science, and inaccurate. Like I said, it’s a huge pet peeve of mine.

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