In June, Time Magazine reported on 17 pregnancies in Gloucester High School, calling it the “Juno effect.” In September, WRAL from Raleigh, N.C. ran an article on the increase in teen pregnancy, pointing a finger at media attention on “high-profile teen moms-to-be, such as Jamie Spears and the daughter of Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin.” In October, The Birmingham News reported an increase in teen pregnancy rates in Alabama, calling it a “national trend.”
Ann Shoket’s blog for Seventeen magazine, (which ran a teen pregnancy issue in February), talks about how people blame celebrities such as Jessica Alba, Nicole Richie, and Ashlee Simpson, for the glamorization of pregnancy.
But can the nations current 3 percent rise in teen-pregnancy, the highest is 15 years, really be blamed on the media?
Jane Brown, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and a principal investigator in the Teen Media project (“Teen Media: The mass media and adolescents’ sexual health”) funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, says there is a definite correlation between media content and teen sexuality.
“Media have become powerful sex educators, especially in this culture where parents are still not talking to children about sex, schools are not allowed to talk about it, and the church says sex is a sin,” Brown said. “This isn’t a good thing because the media doesn’t address the Three C’s: Contraception, Commitment, Consequences.”
However, she said it is hard to pinpoint the media as the cause of risky sexual behavior. Yes, her study has found that those exposed to sexuality through the media at ages 12 to 14, are more likely to become sexually active by 14 to 16. Yet it could be that sexually curious teens chose to look at sexual media at an earlier age.
Brown outlined the three factors needed in order to solidly link the media to teen sexuality. “First, the study needs to show a relationship between exposure to sexual content in the media and sexual behavior. Secondly, it must be proven that exposure to sexual media content comes before sexual behavior. The third factor is that all possible factors must be taken into account and controlled, such as communication with parents, sex-ed in schools, and stimulation seeking.”
A study by the Rand Corporation, released on Monday, is the first to establish a correlation between exposure to sexual media content on TV and teen pregnancy. Teens were asked how often they watched “sexy” TV shows. Shows like “Sex and the City” and “Friends” were part of the list of 20 shows they were asked about.
In 2001, 2,003 12- to 17-year-old boy and girls across America were interviewed about their TV habits. They were re-interviewed twice, the second time in 2004, and questioned about pregnancy. During this time period, 58 girls had become pregnant and 33 boys said they had gotten a girl pregnant.
It was found that pregnancy was twice as common among those who regularly viewed such shows, as compared to those who hardly watched them. In the press release for the Rand study, Anita Chandra, a behavioral scientist and lead author of the study, says that even with other factors considered, such as grades, family structure and parent’s education level, TV watching is strongly connected with teen pregnancy.
Reactions to this study are varied. The Associate Press quotes Elizabeth Schroeder, executive director of Answer, a Rutgers University-based teen sex education program. “The media does have an impact but we don’t know the full extent of it because there are so many other factors,” Schroeder explained.
Others, like Bill Albert, chief program officer at the nonprofit National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, said he feels that the study “catches up with common sense.”
But whatever the reaction, many are troubled by the current rise, and hope that it is not in fact a trend, rather just a statistical blip, for as the drugstore clerk says in Juno, “This is one doodle that can’t be undid.”