In a time when exposure to sexual content in media is almost inevitable, it is important to understand how these messages affect children. Many TV shows, movies, advertisements, magazines and video games portray unrealistic sexual behaviors and stereotypes, while popular music often contains sexually explicit lyrics. All of these media can influence children as they begin to develop their own sense of sexual identity and understanding of cultural norms when it comes to sexual behaviors.
How can media contribute to sexual behaviors in children?
Today, there is a general consensus that frequent exposure to media with sexual content can lead to unreasonable expectations in romantic relationships and can contribute to risky sexual behaviors in children and adolescents. Exposure to developmentally inappropriate sexual content may contribute to difficulties forming healthy romantic relationships, increased risk of teen pregnancy, poor body image and contracting a sexually transmitted infection or disease (STI/STD). The link between sexual content in media and risky sexual behaviors is largely due to the following:
- Children can learn through media about what is considered to be acceptable sexual behavior. Many movies, music videos, video games, and TV shows feature characters engaging in carefree sexual behavior without depicting any potential negative consequences. These characters are often glamorized in ways that inspire kids and adolescents to be like them.
- Studies have shown that children who are exposed to pornography often have difficulties distinguishing between the fictional pornographic characters and behaviors they see and real life sexual situations. This can lead children and adolescents to have unrealistic views of how their bodies should look, insecurities about their appearance (particularly in males), and anxieties about sexual performance and intimacy.
- Media, particularly TV, can often be the main or only source of information about sexuality for children and teens. Unrealistic portrayals of sexual behavior in the media combined with less alternative sources of factual information about sexuality and appropriate behaviors can lead children to use media as a “sexual super peer” that may encourage them to be sexually active, take risks, and/or adopt these beliefs as their own.
- Young children’s exposure to developmentally inappropriate and overtly sexual material in media can scare and confuse them about their own sexuality.
- Most sexual behaviors viewed in mainstream media are between males and females, which may leave homosexual, pan and transsexual children feeling confused about their burgeoning sexuality.
- Children may see or hear their favorite pop or reality star engage in risky sexual behavior and internalize that to mean that this behavior is not only acceptable but expected of them as well.
What YOU Can Do
Although sexual content can be found in many different forms of popular media, limiting how much your children are exposed to can help ensure that they are not learning incorrect information about sexual behavior from the movies, video games, books, magazines and TV shows they interact with. Sex can be a part of healthy life and developing an interest in sex is natural for adolescents, but exposure for younger children is often developmentally inappropriate. Here are several suggestions to help you limit and guide your child’s exposure to sexual content in the media: