Media have changed and adapted dramatically from past decades. While there used to be a limited number of TV channels, there are now hundreds of stations, which teens can watch 24/7, on multiple platforms, including TV, or streaming from the Internet to computers, tablets, or smartphones. It is becoming increasingly difficult to monitor, and potentially limit, the media teens are consuming, as they can consume at all times of day, on multiple platforms, and in multiple locations. This may be concerning to adults, as the more media outlets there are, the greater the chances of unsupervised viewing.
Teen exposure to mature content at a young age, particularly of a sexual nature, may be alarming. Teen TV shows, such as Pretty Little Liars, Young and Hungry, and Riverdale may impact a teen’s physical, mental and psychological behavior. Adolescence is a sensitive time, as they “may be exposed to sexual content in the media during a developmental period when gender roles, sexual attitudes, and sexual behaviors are being shaped” (Gruber and Grube, 2000).
Teenagers view an average of 143 incidents of sexual behavior on network TV, during prime time, each week, with three to four times as many sexual activities occurring between unmarried partners as between spouses (Gruber and Grube, 2000). As teens’ brains aren’t fully developed, they are unable to thoroughly think through the consequences of their actions. Based on this, it would be no surprise if they mimic what they witness on TV.
There are ways for sexual content to positively influence teenagers, as depicted in MTV’s Teen Mom and Sixteen and Pregnant and ABC Family’s Secret Life of the American Teenager. Secret Life of the American Teenager fostered relationships between peers and parents, encouraging them to share their own views and values regarding teen pregnancy. These shows shared the importance of “integrating message into entertainment content in order to help prevent teen pregnancy” (Nightingale, 2014, p. 202).
A teenager’s ability, or interest, in viewing sexual content in the media could depend on various socio-demographic factors, particularly gender, age, and ethnicity. Specifically looking into age factors, “adolescent girls choose network television programs with sexual content more often than do adolescent boys and spend more time watching it, often in the company of parents” (Gruber and Grube, 2000). Is this exposure influencing a teen’s sexual behavior? Grant (2003) found that approximately 50% of 15 to 19-year-olds are having sexual intercourse. Is this due to increased sexual content in the media? Would this percentage of teens be sexually involved if famous actors, portraying teens, on TV weren’t behaving this way?
Should policymakers put restrictions on what teenagers can and can’t view? What would the consequences be if someone disobeyed the restrictions? Should parents be held responsible for supervising what their teens view? These are questions that are addressed through critical media literacy. A strong critical media literacy program in elementary through high school, would benefit teenagers. Teens would be able to analyze and understand what they are being shown in the media; they may better comprehend the media isn’t always truthful or representing “normal” behavior.
Along with the need for adolescents to play an active role in their media consumption, it is important to think about the role of the media corporations. For example, marketers are hired to promote a specific TV show. In order to be successful, it is crucial for the marketer to speak with and understand their target demographic. Their main goal is to appeal to their audience and sell as many “products” as possible. Should marketers or corporations take ownership of the effects their products, or media, may have on their audience?
As there are many ways to bypass media restrictions, it is up to the individual, guardians, educators, and policymakers to make informed decisions about what teens should watch, and what they may take away from the media.
Grant, Christina. “Teens, Sex and the Media: Is There a Connection?” Paediatrics & Child Health, Pulsus Group Inc, May 2003, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2792686/.
Gruber, Enid, and Joel W Grube. “Adolescent Sexuality and the Media: a Review of Current Knowledge and Implications.” Western Journal of Medicine, Copyright 2000 BMJ Publishing Group, Mar. 2000, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1070813/.
Nightingale, M. (2014). Behind the Scenes: Working with Hollywood to Make Positive Social Change. In Jordan, A.B. and Romer, D. (eds). Media and the Well-Being of Children and Adolescents (70-89). London: Oxford University Press.