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April 25, 2013 Volume 34, No. 28

Children watching sexually explicit movies prone to risky sexual behavior as teens, study finds


Parents advised to monitor children’s viewing habits

An MU researcher has identified a connection between children who watch sexually explicit movies and their sexual activity in coming years.

Young people ages 12 to 14 who watch more movies with sexual content than their peers tend to engage in more sexual behavior and begin sexual activity at an earlier age, said Ross O’Hara, an MU postdoc fellow who conducted the research with other psychological scientists while at Dartmouth College. 

“We can’t say that watching sexual content in movies is directly responsible for adolescents’ sexual behavior,” O’Hara said. “However, there is a correlation between the two. Sensation seeking, or the tendency to seek more novel and intense sexual stimulation, seems to increase in young people who watched more movies with sexually explicit content.”

To conduct his study, O’Hara and his colleagues recruited 1,228 participants between ages 12 and 14. Each participant identified from selected lists of 50 top-grossing films from 1998 to 2004 the movies they had seen. The films had previously been evaluated for their level of sexual content.

Six years later, the participants were surveyed to find out how old they were when they became sexually active and how risky their sexual behavior was. Some of the questions focused on whether they use condoms consistently and were monogamous or had multiple partners in their relationships. Statistical methods were used to separate out the influences of socio-economic variables, such as family structure and frequency of television viewing. 

The results of the study found that adolescents exposed to more sexual content in movies start having sex at younger ages, have more sexual partners, and are less likely to use condoms with casual sexual partners.

Movies rarely show or imply safe sex. This influences adolescent filmgoers, O’Hara said. Moreover, “when safe sex is portrayed in films, it is often in comedies and is presented as an inconvenience or embarrassment,” she said. 

Parents of adolescents have a role to play in tempering the influence of films on their children, O’Hara said. To minimize risky sexual behavior later in life, parents can restrict the amounts of sexual content children view and educate them about the consequences of sexual behavior that’s often left out of films.