Exposure to sexual content in popular movies predicts sexual behavior in adolescence

July 17, 2012

Intuitively it simply makes sense: exposure to sexual content in movies at an early age probably influences adolescents' sexual behavior. And yet, even though a great deal of research has shown that adolescents who watch more risky behaviors in popular movies, like drinking or smoking, are more likely to drink and smoke themselves, surprisingly little research has examined whether movies influence adolescents' sexual behaviors.

Until now.

Over six years, psychological scientists examined whether or not seeing sex on the big screen translates into sex in the real world for . Their findings, which are to be published in , a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, revealed not only that it did but also explained some of the reasons why.

"Much research has shown that adolescents' and behaviors are influenced by media," says Ross O'Hara, currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Missouri, who conducted the research with other psychological scientists while at Dartmouth College. "But the role of movies has been somewhat neglected, despite other findings that movies are more influential than TV or music."

Before recruiting participants for the study, O'Hara and his fellow researchers surveyed 684 top grossing movies from 1998 to 2004. They coded the movies for seconds of , like heavy kissing or . This work built on a previous survey of movies from 1950 to 2006 that found that more than 84% of these movies contained sexual content, including 68% of the G rated films, 82% of PG movies and 85% of PG-13 movies. Most of the recent films do not portray , with little mention of using .

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 fifty 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 . One of the great dangers of adolescence, is the predisposition for "sensation seeking" behavior. Between the ages of ten and fifteen, 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. As a result, sensation seeking sexual behavior can last well into the late teens and even into the early twenties if young people are exposed to these kinds of movies. But researchers point out that sexual exposure in movies tends to activate sensation seeking both because of biology and the way that boys and girls are socialized.

"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."

But sensation seeking did not entirely explain these effects; the researchers also speculate that adolescents learn specific behaviors from the sexual messages in movies. Many adolescents turn to movies to acquire "sexual scripts" that offer examples of how to behave when confronted with complicated emotional situations. For 57 percent of American adolescents between the ages of 14 and 16, the media is their greatest source of sexual information. They often don't differentiate between what they see on the screen and what they must confront in daily life .

Researchers point out that it is important to remember that this research cannot conclude a direct causal effect of movies on . Nonetheless, O'Hara says, "This study, and its confluence with other work, strongly suggests that parents need to restrict their children from seeing sexual content in at young ages."

Explore further: Smoking depicted in movies influences younger adolescents

Related Stories

Smoking depicted in movies influences younger adolescents

March 14, 2012
Younger adolescents exposed to movies that depict smoking are at greater risk of smoking than older adolescents, according to a study published March 14 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The Medical Minute: How to counter media messages on sex

July 26, 2011
On television, in music videos, on the Internet and in movies, explicit sexual content is everywhere -- and children are often prime targets.

Recommended for you

Researchers find common psychological traits in group of Italians aged 90 to 101

December 12, 2017
In remote Italian villages nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and mountains lives a group of several hundred citizens over the age of 90. Researchers at the University of Rome La Sapienza and University of California San ...

New therapy can help schizophrenia sufferers re-engage socially

December 11, 2017
A new therapy aimed at helping young people suffering from schizophrenia to reconnect and engage with the world around them has had promising results, according to a new University of Sussex-led study.

Your mood depends on the food you eat, and what you should eat changes as you get older

December 11, 2017
Diet and dietary practices differentially affect mental health in young adults versus older adults, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Certain books can increase infant learning during shared reading, study shows

December 11, 2017
Parents and pediatricians know that reading to infants is a good thing, but new research shows reading books that clearly name and label people and objects is even better.

Twitter can reveal our shared mood

December 11, 2017
In the largest study of its kind, researchers from the University of Bristol have analysed mood indicators in text from 800 million anonymous messages posted on Twitter. These tweets were found to reflect strong patterns ...

Many different types of anxiety and depression exist, new study finds

December 8, 2017
Five new categories of mental illness that cut across the current more broad diagnoses of anxiety and depression have been identified by researchers in a Stanford-led study.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Kafpauzo
not rated yet Jul 17, 2012
"This study, and its confluence with other work, strongly suggests that parents need to restrict their children from seeing sexual content in movies at young ages."


Quite the contrary. Today's hysterical attitudes toward sex fill people with neurotic anxiety. Very much is gained whenever people can instead find a relaxed, loving, careful and responsible attitude toward sex.

If you're exposed to the loving side of sex, rather than the neurotic hysteria, you'll have access both to more happiness and to more rational decision-making.

More exposure, not less, will reduce the neuroses and let you approach the subject with more maturity.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.