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8 May 2000
How TV Moulds Teen Attitudes To Sex
by George Atkinson

Young women who watch more than 22 hours of prime-time TV sitcoms and dramas a month are more likely than those who watch less to endorse a recreational view of sex. But how much time young people spend watching television isn't as important an influence on their sexual attitudes, expectations, and behavior as how involved they are in what they're viewing - how much they identify with the characters, and how realistic they believe a TV show is.

Those are some of the findings of a new University of Michigan study, appearing in a recent issue of the Journal of Sex Research. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the study was conducted by L. Monique Ward, an assistant professor of psychology at the U-M, and graduate student Rocio Rivadeneyra.

For the study, the researchers interviewed a multiethnic sample of 314 undergraduates in Michigan and California and also showed them four clips from prime-time network sitcoms that dealt with jealousy, insecurity, lust, fidelity, and other relationship issues.

They found that the students watched an average of 25 hours of prime-time comedies and dramas, and about eight hours of daytime soap operas a month. But viewing time varied greatly, ranging from zero to more than 300 hours a month.

In an earlier analysis of the content of 36 episodes of TV sit-coms popular among teen viewers, Ward found that 29 percent of the interactions contained verbal references to sexual issues. Of the 875 sexual messages, 12 percent depicted a recreational orientation toward sexual relations, in which sex was seen as a sport or competition, with men competing with each other for "prizes" (beautiful women) and women strategizing on how to "get a good catch."

Nearly as many messages (11.5 percent) depicted women as sexual objects and linked masculinity with sexuality (10 percent). "Whereas portrayals of equitable male-female relations and responsible sexual decision-making were present," Ward notes, "they may have been overshadowed by more frequent depictions of sexual relationships as recreational, superficial, and inconsequential."

When the students watched selected clips, 82 percent to 92 percent rated them as "realistic" or "very realistic," and 65 percent to 78 percent identified with the main characters. However, the students were less likely to feel that many of the situations were likely to happen in their own lives.

Ward and Rivadeneyra also asked students to complete a questionnaire assessing their viewing involvement, containing the following kinds of statements: "I often try to guess what will happen next or how an episode will end" and "I frequently talk to others about what I have recently seen on TV shows."

The researchers examined statistical connections between students' viewing amounts, viewing involvement, and both their sexual attitudes and expectations. While they found that viewing amount was influential for young women only, involvement had a strong connection to sexual attitudes regardless of the students' gender, race, or socioeconomic status.

"Students who reported greater connection with the sexual situations we showed them, either via identification with the characters or by attributing greater realism to the portrayals, were more likely to endorse recreational attitudes toward sex," Ward reports. "They were also more likely to expect higher levels of sexual activity among their peers, and to be more sexually experienced themselves."

In short, television appears to set an agenda that sex is what is important to relationships and to young people, according to Ward. "Those failing to live up to these standards may feel inadequate, when, in fact, it is the expectations that are distorted.

"The findings illustrate that TV's countless verbal and visual references to dating and sexual relationships are, indeed, associated with adolescents' own sexual attitudes and expectations. In many respects, it appears as if TV's sexual portrayals may help to shape adolescents' sense of what is normative and expected.

"Yet this contribution is problematic, because TV's portrayals, while exciting and attractive, also tend to be unrealistic. The extent to which holding such expectations may lead to dissatisfaction with one's sexual experiences and to irresponsible sexual decision-making are valid concerns."




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