One of the critical challenges facing young people today is developing a healthy understanding of their sexuality. The U. S. Surgeon General (2001) has underscored the importance of this task as one of the nation's leading public health concerns. Knowledge about sexually related matters that is gained in formative years builds the foundation for beliefs and attitudes about sex that can influence each individual's life-long pattern of sexual behavior.
Parents, peers, and schools play a central role in the sexual socialization process. Yet the mass media, and particularly television, are another important element likely to contribute to young people's sexual development (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2001). Adolescence is a time of great change. As they go through physical, emotional, cognitive, moral, and social transformations, adolescents face many developmental tasks, including establishing their own sexual identity and managing their early romantic and sexual relationships (Arnett, 1995). Considering its role as a central source of information on the topic (Sutton, Brown, Wilson, & Klein, 2002), television is an important agent helping adolescents deal with these tasks. Indeed, some have labeled the media a sexual "super-peer" because of its role in establishing sexual norms and expectations for young people (Brown, Halpern, & L'Engle, 2005, p. 421). Many teens report that television is an important source of information for them about birth control, contraception, and pregnancy prevention (Sutton et al.); about ideas for how to talk to their boyfriend or girlfriend about sexual issues (Kaiser Family Foundation, 1996); and about sexual and romantic scripts and norms for sexual behavior (Brown, Childers, & Waszak, 1990).
Television's treatment of sexual content in recent years has grown increasingly frequent and prominent, raising societal concerns in an area when decisions about sexual behavior inevitably involve public health issues. Each year in the United States, one of every four sexually active teens is diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease (Institute of Medicine, 1997). Approximately 19 million STD infections are diagnosed annually, with nearly half of them affecting teens and young adults 15-24 years of age (Weinstock, Berman, & Cates, 2004). In addition, the rates of unplanned pregnancies in the United States, though down slightly since the early 1990s, are still among the highest of all industrialized countries (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 2004), driven by the fact that one-third (34%) of young women become pregnant at least once before reaching their 20th birthday (National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2004).
Television's Effects on Adolescent Sexual Socialization
Given these statistics, and the fact that young people spend more time with television than any other medium (Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout, 2005), it is hardly surprising that television's influence on sexual socialization is a topic of interest among researchers and policy makers. Over the last couple of decades, there has been a significant advancement of knowledge about the effects of sexual content presented in mainstream entertainment television on adolescents.
Research has shown that exposure to sexual content on television is related to an increase in learning and comprehension of sexual information (Greenberg et al., 1993; Silverman-Watkins & Sprafkin, 1983). Recently, an episode of the television show Friends in which condom failure was addressed was found to result in significant increases in knowledge about condoms for 17% of a nationally representative sample of 12-17-year-olds who saw the episode (Collins, Elliott, Berry, Kanouse, & Hunter, 2003). Moreover, 10% of adolescent viewers of the episode reported talking with an adult about condom efficacy as a result of watching the episode.
Importantly, exposure to sexual content on television has been found to positively relate to the endorsement of more recreational attitudes toward sex (Ward & Rivadeneyra, 1999) and more liberal sexual attitudes (Calfin, Carroll, & Shmidt, 1993). It has been shown to correlate with adolescents' perceptions of their own and others' enjoyment of sexual relationships (Baran, 1976). Bryant and Rockwell (1994) found that adolescents who viewed large doses of television drama programs with extensive sexual content were less negative in their ratings of descriptions of casual sexual encounters than adolescents who viewed no sexual content in an experiment.
Exposure to sexual content on television has also been linked to adolescents' sexual behavior and the early initiation of sexual intercourse (Brown & Newcomer, 1991). In a recent study of 7th and 8th graders, Pardun, L'Engle, and Brown (2005) created an index for each adolescent known as their Sexual Media Diet (SMD). SMD was found to significantly relate to adolescents' level of sexual activity and future intentions to engage in sexual activity. A longitudinal study of a nationally representative sample of 12-17-year-old adolescents (Collins et al., 2004) found that heavier exposure to televised sexual content, both talk about sex and sexual behaviors, accelerates the initiation of intercourse and other advanced sexual activities.
The empirical evidence is consistent with theoretical predictions about the role that media exposure plays in shaping adolescents' sexual knowledge, expectations, attitudes, and behaviors. Social cognitive theory (SCT) is often used to guide both content analyses of sexual messages in the media and studies of these messages' effects on viewers (e.g., Aubrey, 2004; Farrar, Kunkel, Biely, Eyal, & Donnerstein, 2003). SCT addresses the notion of establishing expectations and norms about the outcomes of behaviors through observations of models in the media, and then learning and enacting behaviors (Bandura, 1977). This theory lays the foundation for explaining and predicting the effects of exposure to sexual media content on young people.
Sexual Content on Television
Numerous content analyses have been conducted examining the sexual messages across the television landscape and in specific genres (e.g., Greenberg, 1994; Kunkel et al., 2003). Significant increases over time have been documented in the overall frequency of sexual messages, with the most common presentation--in over 60% of shows--being talk about sex, especially about sexual interests and activities (Greenberg, 1994; Greenberg & Busselle, 1994; Kunkel et al., 2003). Sexual behaviors have consistently appeared in about a third of all television shows (Kunkel et al., 2003), with passionate kissing topping the list of behaviors. Intercourse, most often strongly implied rather than directly depicted, was portrayed in about 1 of 7 (14%) shows in the overall television landscape in 2001-2002--a proportion significantly higher than that observed 4 years earlier (Kunkel et al., 2003). Sexual intercourse is most common in soap operas and in prime-time shows viewed by teens (Greenberg et al., 1993).
Safer sex messages are rare on television, appearing in only about 10% of shows (Heintz-Knowles, 1996; Kunkel, Cope-Farrar, Biely, Farinola, & Donnerstein, 2001). These messages address such topics as sexual patience (i.e., waiting until one is ready before engaging in intercourse), sexual precaution (e.g., the mention of safer-sex terminology, the use of condoms and other preventative measures when engaging in sex), and negative consequences that may result from sexual intercourse (e.g., unwanted pregnancy, STD contraction). Mentions of such risks and responsibilities associated with sexual behaviors send important messages about the seriousness with which this topic should be addressed. Related to this, the studies cited above found that outcomes of sexual intercourse are not often portrayed on television although Heintz-Knowles found that sexual acts mostly resulted in positive relational outcomes in soap operas. Considering that outcome contingencies experienced by characters on television may serve as important cues for viewers about the likely outcomes they themselves might experience (Bandura, 1977), the scarcity of safer sex messages may hold important implications for audience effects. It may signal to young viewers that the potential negative consequences of sexual intercourse are not meaningful, long lasting, or emotionally impactful enough to justify their depiction on television and, therefore, to be taken into serious consideration by youth.
Although adolescents arguably constitute the most sensitive audience for sexual messages on television, only a few previous content analyses have focused on teens' favorite programs (Cope & Kunkel, 2002; Greenberg et al., 1993; Ward, 1995). Consistent with content analyses of television in general, studies find that sexual messages are abundant in programs most popular among teens. Cope and Kunkel (2002) reported that talk about sex was present in 67% of such programs while sexual behavior was present in 62%. These findings are consistent with Ward's report of talk about sex in shows heavily viewed by children and adolescents in 1992-93; and with Greenberg et al. who found that portrayals of sexual behaviors constituted over one-third of all sexual acts in prime-time shows viewed by adolescents.
As is the case with prime-time programs and across the general television landscape, risk and responsibility concerns and the consequences of sexuality are not frequently addressed in programs popular among teens. Only 14% of scenes with sexual content and 11% of programs popular with adolescents were found to place emphasis on such topics, most often referring to sexual patience, or the idea of waiting until one is ready to have sexual intercourse (Cope & Kunkel, 2002). Three-fourths of characters who engaged in sexual behaviors did not experience any clear consequences for their actions. When consequences were portrayed they tended to be mostly positive...