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Am Fam Physician. 2006;74(5):846-852

Younger adolescents who initiate sexual intercourse have been shown to be more likely to engage in risky behaviors. There are several risk factors for sexual initiation in younger adolescents, one of which may be the amount of television the adolescent watches. Multiple studies have shown that adolescents watch programs that have a significant amount of sexual content but little information about sexual risks. In addition, adolescents 13 to 15 years of age ranked entertainment media as their most likely source for sexual health information. Few studies have assessed the issue of sexual initiation and television viewing. Ashby and associates conducted a longitudinal study to determine if the amount of television viewing by younger adolescents was associated with sexual initiation and whether parental regulation of the viewing changed the outcomes.

The study was a portion of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) that randomly sampled students from various high schools and feeder schools across the United States. A portion of the total population was selected for in-home interviews concerning more sensitive information. Of this group, some were selected to have a second interview approximately one year later. Those who were younger than 16 years and had not initiated sexual intercourse were included in the data analysis. Information collected in the survey included self-reported television viewing and whether parents allowed the teenagers to make their own decisions about television viewing. During the second interview, the teenagers reported whether they had initiated sexual intercourse since the first interview.

There were 4,808 adolescents who participated in the study. Low and high television viewing were defined as less than two hours per day and two or more hours per day, respectively. At the start of the study, 48.8 percent of the adolescents reported high television viewing habits. At the second interview, 15.6 percent (791) of all participants had initiated sexual intercourse. Those adolescents who reported high television viewing were more likely to initiate sexual intercourse compared with those with low television viewing (odds ratio = 1.35, 95% confidence interval, 1.01 to 1.79). The lack of parental regulation of television viewing also was associated with an increase in the likelihood of initiating sexual intercourse. Despite a lower overall rate of intercourse among adolescents in households where there was strong parental disapproval of sex, those with high television viewing and lack of parental television regulation had the highest rate of initiation.

The authors conclude that younger adolescents whose parents strongly disapprove of sex were more likely to initiate sexual intercourse if they watched television for two or more hours per day. This was especially true if their television viewing was not regulated. The authors add that following the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines of no more than two hours of television viewing per day and an active parental role in viewing habits may decrease sexual initiation in younger adolescents.

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