For years, the Kaiser Family Foundation has been reporting that the more sexual images kids are exposed to on TV and elsewhere, the more likely they are to start having sex at an early age, have more partners and are less likely to use condoms and other “safe” behaviors.
So last July, the University of Missouri released a study that looked at teens and movies specifically and found exactly the same thing.
It’s important to note that this is about a correlation. It’s not a cause and effect thing. In other words, too many episodes of How I Met Your Mother is not going to cause your 13-year-old to hop in bed with the entire 8th grade. To the best of my knowledge, no one really knows why this correlation exists – although most speculate that the kind of lax parental supervision that allows kids to see these kinds of images is the same kind that lets kids get into that kind of trouble.
Whether teens should be engaging in sex is one of those gray areas. We know that early sex and promiscuity are not healthy, but how soon is too soon and how many is too many? That is going to vary greatly within families according to their values and from kid to kid, because the level of emotional maturity varies from kid to kid.
Personally, I believe that the vast majority of kids in high school are not mature enough to deal with all of the ramifications of sexual activity – and oddly enough, in my experience, the ones who are mature enough are the ones who actually wait. And I’m not just talking about pregnancy and STDs. There’s a whole emotional level to sexual activity that I don’t think kids are generally ready for. You see it all the time with boys who do it with their girlfriends, then don’t call. Both kids doing it because they feel pressured by their peers or wonder if they’re normal because they don’t want to.
And I think that’s where our media has failed us. Too often, programming assumes that sex is the first step in the relationship and the goal. It’s all about the hot boy or hot girl. There’s something wrong with you if you haven’t lost your virginity by the end of high school. These messages are all about pressure and looks and that’s not good for a healthy, vibrant sex life. Nor is it very fair to our kids.
Which is why we need to watch TV with our kids and reassure them that making it through college with your virginity intact just means you haven’t found the right person or situation and not that there’s something wrong with you. And the best thing we can do is help them to value themselves as whole people who prefer healthy relationships.