A new study links exposure to sexual content in movies at an early age to adolescents' sexual behavior. Over six years, psychological scientists examined whether or not seeing sex on the big screen translates into sex in the real world for adolescents. Their findings, which are to be published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, revealed not only that it did but also explained some of the reasons why.
Before recruiting participants for the study, Ross O'Hara, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Missouri, and his fellow researchers surveyed 684 top grossing movies from 1998 to 2004. They coded the movies for seconds of sexual content, like heavy kissing or sexual intercourse. This work built on a previous survey of movies from 1950 to 2006 that found that more than 84 percent of these movies contained sexual content, including 68 percent of the G-rated films, 82 percent of PG movies and 85 percent of PG-13 movies. Most of the recent films do not portray safe sex, with little mention of using contraception.
Researchers then recruited 1,228 participants who were from 12 to 14 years of age. Each participant reported which movies they had seen from a number of different collections of 50 that were randomly selected. 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 might have been. Did they use condoms consistently? Were they monogamous or did they have multiple partners?
"Adolescents who are 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," O'Hara explained.
Why do movies have these effects on adolescents? These researchers examined the role of a personality trait known as sensation-seeking. One of the great dangers of adolescence, is the predisposition for "sensation seeking" behavior. Between the ages of 10 and 15, the tendency to seek more novel and intense stimulation of all kinds peaks. The wild hormonal surges of adolescence makes judicious thinking a bit more difficult.
O'Hara and his colleagues found that greater exposure to sexual content in movies at a young age actually led to a higher peak in sensation seeking during adolescence. "These movies appear to fundamentally influence their personality through changes in sensation-seeking, " O'Hara says, "Which has far-reaching implications for all of their risk-taking behaviors."