Using TV as a Guide: Associations Between Television Viewing and Adolescents' Sexual Attitudes and Behavior

Authors


Requests for reprints should be sent to L. Monique Ward, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 530 Church Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1043. E-mail: ward@umich.edu

Abstract

Using both correlational and experimental methodology, this study examined contributions of TV viewing to adolescents' sexual attitudes and behavior. A sample of 244 high school students was assigned to view clips depicting either one of three sexual stereotypes or neutral content. Participants then completed measures assessing their attitudes about sexual roles and relationships, their regular TV viewing habits, and their sexual experiences. Results indicated that more frequent viewing of talk shows and of “sexy” prime-time programs, and viewing TV more intently for companionship, were each associated with greater endorsement of sexual stereotypes. Additionally, more frequent viewing and stronger identification with popular TV characters were associated with greater levels of sexual experience. Laboratory exposure to specific stereotypical content lead to greater acceptance of gender and sexual stereotypes, as well. Implications for television's role as a sexual educator are discussed.

Evidence increasingly suggests that the media are likely to play a prominent role in the sexual socialization of American youth. Across several studies, students commonly rank the media among their top sexual informants, often placing them second after peers and before parents in importance (e.g., Amonker, 1980; Andre, Frevert, & Schuchmann, 1989). Indeed, between the ages of 8 and 18, adolescents devote approximately 8 hours each day to the media, and 3–4 hours to television alone (Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout, 2005), spending more hours with TV each year than interacting directly with their parents or teachers (Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001). At the same time, analyses indicate that sexual content is abundant on TV, appearing in 83% of programs popular among adolescents (Kunkel, Eyal, Biely, Cope-Farrar, Donnerstein, & Fandrich, 2003), and in 29% of the interactions between TV characters (Ward, 1995). Media personae also play a prominent role as “idols” for many adolescents, who imitate their looks, actions (e.g., dance moves), and attitudes in several domains (Karniol, 2001). Finally, TV is often forthcoming and supportive about sexuality when others are not. Its accessibility, frankness, and appealing nature make it almost an “ideal” sexual educator.

However, the lessons television conveys about sexuality are not always ideal. Several decades of content analyses report that TV's sexual messages are typically unrealistic, stereotypical, and potentially unhealthy (for a review, see Greenberg, 1994; Ward, 2003). One prominent finding is that TV often emphasizes a “recreational” orientation to sexual relationships (DeLamater, 1989), one in which sex is portrayed as a casual, leisure activity motivated solely by physical pleasure and personal gain (Arnett, 2002; Greenberg, 1994; Ward, 1995). Here, sexuality is frequently referred to and depicted as occurring outside of committed relationships, with minimal reference to contraception, pregnancy prevention, and sexually transmitted infections (e.g., Kunkel et al., 2003; Lowry & Shidler, 1993). In addition, dating and courtship are often characterized as a competition, a battle-of-the-sexes, in which dishonesty, game-playing, and manipulation are staples (Ward, 1995). A second prominent finding is that TV regularly offers stereotypical portrayals of sexual roles that are based heavily on the sexual double standard. On television, women are frequently depicted as sexual objects whose value is based solely on their physical appearance and sexual appeal (Gow, 1995; Grauerholz & King, 1997; Vincent, Davis, & Boruszkowski, 1987). Men, on the other hand, are depicted as sex-driven predators who look to “score” at all costs, and whose value is enhanced by their success with women (i.e., being a “player;”Arnett, 2002; Ward, 1995). These stereotypical themes are believed to be especially prevalent in certain youth-oriented genres, such as music videos and daytime talk shows (Arnett, 2002; Greenberg, Sherry, Busselle, Hnilo, & Smith, 1997).

Given television's under-emphasis on the seriousness of sex and its skewed portrayal of sexual roles, concern is frequently expressed that regular exposure to these images may misinform adolescents' developing sexual belief systems. This supposition is supported both by theoretical arguments and empirical evidence. According to cultivation theory, repeated exposure to commonly portrayed media messages will foster analogous beliefs in media users (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1994), most likely by making relevant schemas chronically accessible (Shrum, 1996). Thus, teens who frequently view TV's repeated references to sex as recreational or to women as sexual objects would gradually come to adopt similar beliefs about sexuality in the real world. Empirical evidence validates this assumption. Across several studies, frequent viewing of sexually oriented genres, such as soap operas and music videos, has been associated with a greater acceptance of premarital sex, common sexual stereotypes, and dysfunctional beliefs about relationships (Haferkamp, 1999; Strouse & Buerkel-Rothfuss, 1987; Walsh-Childers & Brown, 1993; Ward, 2002).

Limitations of Existing Approaches

Yet despite the promise of these findings, conclusions drawn about the impact of TV viewing on adolescents' sexual socialization remain tentative because of limitations of the methodological approaches, samples tested, and assessments of media use. One limitation is that experimental work needed to demonstrate causality has been slow in coming, making up less than 20% of the published studies in this area (for a review, see Ward, 2003). Among the existing studies, findings indicate that students exposed to sexual content in the laboratory offer stronger endorsement of premarital sex (Calfin, Carroll, & Shmidt, 1993; Greeson & Williams, 1987), sexual stereotypes (Ward, 2002; Ward, Hansbrough, & Walker, 2005), and adversarial sexual relations (Kalof, 1999) than do students exposed to nonsexual content. At the same time, however, null findings have also been reported (Greenberg, Linsangan, & Soderman, 1993), and in some studies, significant results emerged for only one of many dependent variables (Kalof, 1999; Olson, 1994). Additional demonstrations of causal connections are needed.

A second limitation is that most studies in this area have tested undergraduates, not teens. However, many argue that adolescents may be more vulnerable to TV's messages because they are likely to possess fewer real-world comparative experiences, a stronger idolization of media figures, and less refined formal reasoning abilities (Gruber & Grube, 2000). Indeed, one of the central developmental tasks of adolescence is adjusting to one's self as a sexual being and establishing romantic relationships. In confronting this novel task, adolescents may be particularly open to new information (Furman & Simon, 1999), looking to relevant examples, both real and fictional, for guidance. Consequently, understanding external influences on sexual beliefs during this formative time is critical.

A third limitation is that most assessments of TV viewing have focused on the role of exposure levels, based on premises of the cultivation model, and may have under-emphasized contributions of other media mechanisms. Indeed, theoretical arguments and empirical evidence indicate that exposure is only one dimension of media use and therefore only one pathway of potential influence. For example, uses and gratifications theory (Rubin, 1994) argues that individuals use the media for different purposes, and that the particular motives viewers bring to the screen play a critical role in determining how open they may be to the content or to potential influence. Whereas some viewers use TV intentionally to learn about the world, others use it for entertainment, for companionship, or not intently at all. Other approaches, including Greenberg's drench hypothesis (Greenberg, 1988), highlight the role of viewer identification, arguing that media portrayals with which viewers connect and identify will exert the most influence. Empirical evidence supports the role of these two mechanisms. Identifying with popular characters and perceiving media figures as role models have been associated with endorsing more recreational attitudes about sex (Fabes & Strouse, 1987; Ward & Rivadeneyra, 1999). Similarly, watching TV more intently either to learn about the world or for pure entertainment has been associated with endorsing more stereotypical notions about gender and sexual roles (Ward, 2002; Ward & Rivadeneyra, 1999). Because levels of identification and viewing motives may or may not correspond with viewing frequency, focusing solely on exposure levels may omit important avenues of influence.

A final limitation is that most studies in this area have focused on predicting viewers' sexual attitudes, with little attention to associations between media use and sexual behavior. Although decisions about sexual activity are complex, support for a link between TV viewing and sexual behavior can be envisioned from the perspective of Bandura's Social Cognitive Theory (1994). This theory proposes that individuals can expand their knowledge, skills, and behavioral repertoires on the basis of information acquired by observing media models, and are especially likely to follow models who are attractive and who are perceived to be similar to oneself. In this way, observing TV's attractive characters enjoying sexual intercourse, or watching pop stars receive peer approval for “being a player,” could lead adolescents to perceive these behaviors as appropriate and to store this information for later use (Brown & Steele, 1995). Thus, the expectation is that viewers' own sexual decisions can be shaped by observing, identifying with, and following the rewarded actions of media models.

Empirical evidence lends some support to this premise, although the findings have been few and somewhat mixed. Students' total amount of TV viewing has not emerged as a significant correlate of their level of sexual activity (Brown & Newcomer, 1991; Peterson, Moore, & Furstenberg, 1991; Strouse & Buerkel-Rothfuss, 1987; Ward & Rivadeneyra, 1999). However, stronger results have been obtained when exposure to more sexually oriented genres was examined. Among young women, frequent viewing of music videos has been linked with a greater number of sexual partners (Strouse & Buerkel-Rothfuss, 1987; Wingood, DiClemente, Bernhardt, Harrington, Davies, Robillard, & Hook, 2003), more sexual experience (Strouse, Buerkel-Rothfuss, & Long, 1995), and a greater likelihood of acquiring a new STD (Wingood et al., 2003). For undergraduate men, frequent viewing of soap operas has been linked to having more sexual partners (Strouse & Buerkel-Rothfuss, 1987). For both sexes, choosing a TV diet with a higher proportion of sexual content has been associated with an increased likelihood of becoming sexually active (Brown & Newcomer, 1991; Collins, Elliot, Berry, Kanouse, Kunkel, Hunter, & Miu, 2004). Through these findings, it appears that direct associations between TV viewing and sexual behavior may exist, but are likely to vary based on the genre and sexual behavior under study. Further examination is therefore needed of the nature of these associations.

The Current Study

Television's abundant yet often stereotypical sexual content has raised concern that frequent exposure to these portrayals might misguide adolescents' developing sexual attitudes and behaviors. Current evidence suggests that these concerns are warranted, indicating that both regular and laboratory exposure to TV's sexual content are associated with stronger support of nonrelational sex and specific sexual stereotypes. However, the strength of these conclusions is tempered by methodological and conceptual limitations that underscore the need for additional evidence of causal connections, purposeful sampling of adolescent viewers, and broader assessments of media use and sexual behavior. Drawing from several theoretical perspectives, we sought to address these limitations by examining associations between multiple dimensions of TV use and adolescents' sexual beliefs and behavior. Using both survey and experimental methods, we enacted three specific goals.

Our first goal was to demonstrate causal links between exposure to sexual stereotypes and viewers' acceptance of them by replicating among high school students the experimental findings of Ward (2002). In Ward's study, undergraduates were assigned to view clips depicting either nonsexual content or one of the following three sexual stereotypes: Sex is Recreational, Women are Sex Objects, Men are Sex-Driven. Immediately after viewing the clips, participants completed measures testing their endorsement of related sexual stereotypes and their regular media habits. Women exposed to any of the three sexual stereotypes offered stronger support of those notions than did women in the control group. Using the same paradigm and stimulus clips, we hoped to demonstrate similar outcomes with a younger population. Accordingly, our first hypothesis was that participants exposed to specific sexual stereotypes would offer stronger endorsement of these notions than students exposed to nonsexual content.

Our second goal was to expand investigations of how regular TV viewing might relate to teens' sexual attitudes by looking at contributions of three media mechanisms: exposure levels, viewing motives, and viewer identification. In previous studies, associations between regular exposure levels and sexual attitudes were demonstrated mainly for sexually oriented programming. We chose, therefore, to focus on the following three genres known for their popularity among teens and their high levels of sexual content: music videos, daytime talk shows, and selected prime-time programs (Arnett, 2002; Greenberg et al., 1997). We hypothesized that students who watch greater amounts of these genres would be more likely to endorse their common sexual stereotypes. In terms of other media mechanisms, we focused on the roles of viewer motivations and identification levels, replicating the approach of Ward (2002). Based on premises of the drench hypothesis (Greenberg, 1988), we expected that students who identify more strongly with popular TV characters would also be more likely to endorse commonly portrayed sexual stereotypes. Additionally, drawing from uses and gratifications theory (Rubin, 1994), we hypothesized that students who watch TV more purposefully, especially to learn about the world, would also be more likely to endorse its common sexual stereotypes.

Our final goal was to examine associations between adolescents' regular TV use and their sexual behavior. In testing this issue, we expanded existing approaches in three ways. First, we investigated several potential avenues of influence, examining whether exposure levels, viewing motives, or viewer identification are associated with adolescents' sexual behavior. Second, we assessed sexual behavior more broadly, acknowledging that emergent sexuality is composed of many activities including kissing and petting, oral sex, and vaginal intercourse. We therefore inquired about a range of sexual activities to capture this diversity. We hypothesized that higher exposure levels, more purposeful viewing, and stronger identification with popular characters would each be associated with higher levels of sexual experience. Finally, to further explore the dynamics of these associations, we investigated whether viewers' sexual attitudes mediate connections between TV viewing and sexual behavior. Although Social Cognitive Theory proposes a direct connection between TV viewing and behavior, it is also possible that media use informs adolescents' beliefs about sexuality, which are then used to guide their sexual decision-making (e.g., Christopher, 2001; Furman & Simon, 1999). Thus, we tested whether adolescents' TV viewing is associated with their sexual behavior through both direct and indirect pathways. By examining multiple dimensions of media use and multiple sexual outcomes, we hoped to offer fuller insight into television's role in the sexual socialization process.

METHOD

Participants

Participants were 244 students (59% females), aged 14–18 (M=16.3 years) attending a college-oriented, suburban high school in Long Island, New York. Eighty percent of participants identified themselves as Caucasian or White, 13% as Asian American, 5% as African American, and .4% as Latino/a, and this sample was representative of the school's general population. Most participants were from intact, well-educated families, with 89% coming from two-parent homes, and with participants' mothers and fathers averaging 16.9 and 17.5 years of schooling, respectively. Approximately 66% of the sample was Jewish, 11% was Protestant/Christian, 8% was Catholic, 8% reported no religious affiliation, and 1.6% was Muslim.

Procedure

The study was conducted during students' English and language classes in order to tap the most representative sample. Several classes from each grade were randomly selected for participation. Parental consent forms and copies of the actual survey were sent home with the students as requested by the high school's IRB. Because research is highly valued at the school, 95% of parents and teens receiving consent forms agreed to participate. Participating classes were assigned to either the Control condition (N=40), or to one of the following three Experimental conditions: Sex as Recreation (N=60), Women as Sex Objects (N=22), Men as Sex Driven (N=31). Differences in class sizes lead to differences in cell sizes. During each testing session students first viewed and responded to a set of six stimulus clips. Afterwards, participants completed survey measures assessing their endorsement of gender and sexual stereotypes, and then completed measures examining their regular media use. Experimental and survey data were collected from 154 students in May of 2002. In order to increase the sample size for the main correlational analyses, survey data from an additional 90 students were collected in October of 2002. This latter group of students was not exposed to the experimental stimuli and did not differ from the first group on any of the media use or sexual attitude variables. They were, however, significantly younger than the first group, t(230)=9.15, p=.000.

Materials

Experimental media exposure. The goal of the experimental component of this study was to compare the sexual attitudes of students exposed to neutral, nonsexual content with those of students exposed to clips depicting one of the three sexual stereotypes noted above. To meet this goal, four sets of stimuli were used, each of which had been employed in the Ward (2002) study testing college students. Each set of stimuli consisted of six brief scenes drawn from popular, prime-time sitcoms and dramas (e.g., Seinfeld, Family Matters) from the 1992–1999 broadcast seasons. Serving as the three Experimental stimuli were one clip reel containing scenes of Women as Sexual Objects, one reel containing scenes of Sex as Recreation, and one containing scenes of Men as Sex Driven. Serving as the Control stimulus was a clip reel that contained six nonsexual scenes drawn from the same archive of programming. Each stimulus tape was approximately 12 minutes in length.

Because each of the clip reels contained different scenes, we included in the survey four questions designed to investigate potential differences in students' perceptions of the materials. Accordingly, participants provided written responses to each of the following questions after the viewing of each scene: “How entertaining or funny is this clip;”“How realistic do you believe the actions were;”“To what extent do you identify with the characters;” and “Have you seen this episode before?” Responses to the first three questions were scored using a four-point scale; higher scores indicated higher levels of that construct. Responses were later averaged across the six clips, producing four variables that allowed us to investigate Experimental versus Control group differences in students' perceptions of the clips.

Regular media exposure. Assessments of participants' regular exposure levels focused on their viewing of music videos, talk shows, and prime-time comedies and dramas high in sexual content. Frequency of viewing music videos was assessed via five questions examining the number of hours students watch music videos during the week (morning, afternoon, and evening), on Saturday, and on Sunday. Monthly totals were calculated from these data. To assess students' viewing of talk shows, we provided a list of six popular daytime talk shows (e.g., Jerry Springer) known to cover issues relating to sex and relationships (Greenberg et al., 1997). Using a five-point scale anchored by 0 (“never/not this season”) and 4 (“almost every day”), participants rated how often during an average month they watched each talk show listed. These scores were converted to hours (i.e., “almost every day” was equated with 20 monthly hours), and a measure of monthly talk show viewing was calculated by summing the amounts viewed across the six programs.

A three-step procedure was used to evaluate students' level of exposure to sexual content in prime-time programs. First, participants received a list of all primetime comedies and dramas that had aired regularly during Winter 2002 on one of the six major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, UPN, WB) and on HBO. Using a five-point scale anchored by “never/not this season” at 0 and “every week” at 4, participants rated how often during an average month they had watched each of the 89 programs listed. As a second step, a group of 84 college freshmen used a 1–5 scale to evaluate the level of sexual content in each of the 89 programs. Raters were asked to evaluate only programs with which they were familiar. A subset of 21 programs (e.g., Sex and the City, Ally McBeal) high in sexual content (i.e., with mean ratings from 3.5 to 4.9) was extracted from this group. Finally, each high school student's monthly exposure to these 21 programs (Sexy Prime-Time hours) was calculated based on the frequency with which each program was viewed and the length of the program (i.e., 30 versus 60 minutes).

Viewing motives. Students' motivations for watching TV were examined via 22 statements that were drawn from existing research on viewing motives (e.g., Carverth & Alexander, 1985; Rubin, 1984) and tested in Ward (2002). Responses to each statement were made using a six-point scale that ranged from 1 (“strongly disagree”) to 6 (“strongly agree”). Factor analyses1 revealed these statements to reflect the following three subscales: a Learning Motive (11 items, α=.80; e.g., “because it helps me learn about myself and others”); a Fun Habit Motive (six items, α=.69; e.g., “because they are entertaining and enjoyable”); and a Friend/Companion Motive (three items, α=.61; e.g., “because they help me forget my problems;”“because they keep me company”). These subscales are similar to those observed in past research (e.g., Greenberg, 1974; Rubin, 1981). For each subscale, a mean score was computed across the individual items such that higher scores indicated stronger motivations.

Viewer identification. To assess students' level of identification with TV characters, we provided a list of 11 popular female characters (e.g., Rachel on Friends) and 11 popular male characters (e.g., Pacey on Dawson's Creek) as determined by pilot testing with the 84 freshmen raters described above and by analysis of teen award show nominees and winners. Participants rated the extent to which they identified with each character using a four-point scale anchored by “do not identify with at all” at 1 and “strongly identify” at 4. Mean evaluations of the female characters served as the Same-Sex Identification score for girls (α=.88); mean evaluations of the male characters served as the Same-Sex Identification score for boys (α=.81). Higher scores indicated stronger identification.

Attitudes about gender roles and sexual relationships. To assess participants' general attitudes about the roles and appropriate behaviors of women and men, the Attitudes Toward Women Scale for Adolescents was employed (Galambos, Peterson, Richards, & Gitelson, 1985). For this measure, students rated their level of agreement with each of 12 statements (e.g., “Swearing is worse for a girl than a boy”) using a six-point scale anchored by “strongly disagree” at 1 and “strongly agree” at 6. After reversing the scoring for specific items, a mean score was taken (α=.82), such that higher scores reflected more traditional or stereotypical attitudes about gender.

To assess participants' attitudes about sexual roles and relationships, we selected and modified the following three subscales from the Attitudes Towards Dating and Relationships Measure used in Ward (2002): Sex is Recreational (nine items, α for this sample=.67; e.g., “Sexual activity is desirable as early in a relationship as possible”); Men are Sex Driven (nine items, α=.77; e.g., “It's only natural for a guy to make sexual advances to a girl he finds attractive”); and Women are Sexual Objects (seven items, α=.72; e.g., “The best way for a girl to attract a guy is to use her body and looks”). Participants rated their level of agreement with each statement using a six-point scale that ranged from “strongly disagree” at 1 to “strongly agree” at 6. Mean scores were taken for each of the three subscales such that higher scores indicated stronger endorsement of that sexual stereotype.

Level of dating and sexual experience. Assessments of each participant's level of experience with dating and sexual relationships were computed based on responses to several items. First, we examined participants' general level of relationship experience via the following statement: “Describe your level of experience with dating and sexual relationships.” Responses were indicated on an 11-point scale that included the following markers: “just starting out” (0–1), “some dating” (2–3), “1–2 sexual relationships” (4–6), and “several sexual relationships” (7–10). Second, to examine students' actual sexual experiences, we included several open-ended questions that assessed their virginity status, number of sexual partners, experiences with oral sex (given, received), and use of contraception. Based on their responses to these items, we created a 1–4 scale representing students' general level of Dating and Sexual Experience. Students who were virgins, reported no experience with oral sex, and responded with a score of 0 or 1 on the relationship experience question were scored as 1 (N=60). Students who were virgins, reported no experience with oral sex, but did have some dating experience, reporting scores of 2 or 3 on the relationship experience question, were scored as 2 (N=70). Students who were virgins but reported experience with oral sex were scored as 3 (N=61). Nonvirgins (N=32) received a score of 4. Thus, higher scores on this measure indicated higher levels of Dating and Sexual Experience.

RESULTS

Preliminary analyses

Descriptive statistics of the independent and dependent variables are provided in Table 1, with means reported both for the whole sample and separately for each sex. On average, participants watched 10 hours of the Sexy Prime-Time programs each month (of a possible 54 hours), with an additional 40 hours of music video viewing and 5 hours of talk show viewing each month. Support for the gender and sexual stereotypes was rather tepid, with means of 2.2–3.5 (on a six-point scale). This indicates that, on average, participants “disagreed a little” and “agreed a little” with the stereotypes presented. Endorsement of the various viewing motives was also moderate.

Table 1. 
Descriptive Statistics and Sex Differences for Key Independent and Dependent Variables
VariableSample
Mean
SDRangeFemale
Mean
Male
Mean
Sex Difference
(t-test)
  • Note.

  • *

    p<.05.

  • **

    p<.01.

  • ***

    p<.001, two-tailed tests.

Exposure
Sexy Prime-Time (hours/month)9.966.190–31.511.687.395.48***
Music video (hours/month)39.6548.450–292.037.6342.61−.78
Talk show (hours/month)4.778.250–60.05.064.34.67
Viewing motivation
Learning motive2.21.761–42.142.32−1.84
Fun habit motive3.28.581–43.333.211.52
Friend/companionship motive2.50.851–42.502.50.01
Viewer identification
ID with same-sex characters1.93.581–3.822.051.753.91*
Sexual attitudes/behavior
Traditional gender roles2.19.771–5.91.892.63−8.46***
Sex as recreation3.34.701.4–5.43.113.67−6.48***
Men are sex driven3.20.811.3–5.73.003.48−4.73***
Women/sexual objects3.47.881–6.03.183.90−6.88***
Dating/sexual experience2.291.021–42.182.45−1.99*

Significant sex differences emerged for a number of the media and sexuality variables (see Table 1). Although boys and girls were relatively comparable in their viewing of music videos and daytime talk shows, girls watched significantly more hours of the Sexy Prime-Time programs than did boys, and reported stronger levels of identification with popular, same-sex TV characters. In addition, girls expressed less agreement with each of the four gender and sexual stereotypes and reported lower levels of Dating and Sexual Experience.

To investigate additional demographic correlates of students' sexual attitudes and behavior, a series of zero-order correlational analyses was run between the five sexual attitude and behavior variables and the following background factors: age, mother's education, father's education, family structure (i.e., coming from a single-parent family), and religious affiliation (i.e., being Jewish). Few significant associations emerged. Being older was associated with higher levels of Dating and Sexual Experience, r (219)=.35, p<.001. Having a more educated mother was associated with weaker endorsement of Recreational Sex, r (224)=−.16, p<.05. These significant demographic correlates were included as controls in later regression analyses.

Preliminary analyses were also conducted to investigate inter-correlations between the seven TV viewing variables. As summarized in Table 2, findings indicate that the TV variables were moderately inter-related, with the most notable set of connections occurring between the three viewing motive variables. Additionally, students' levels of viewing Sexy Prime-Time programs were positively related to their music video viewing, their use of TV as a fun habit, and their level of identification with popular TV characters. Because significant correlations did not exceed .51, concerns for multi-collinearity were minimal. Inter-correlations between the four sexual attitude variables were also examined. The variables were significantly correlated with each other (p<.001), and correlation coefficients ranged from .44 to .70. Thus, participants who endorsed one of the sexual stereotypes were likely to endorse the others.

Table 2. 
Zero-Order Inter-Correlations between the Seven TV Viewing Variables
 SexyPrimeMVideosTalkShowFriend/Co.FunHabitLearningIdentification
  • Note.

  • *

    p<.05.

  • **

    p<.01.

  • ***

    p<.001.
    Statistically significant outcomes are bolded for clarity.

SexyPrime1.00.19**.10.08.24***−.06.31***
MVideos 1.00.26***.05.02.14*.07
TalkShow  1.00.09.08.15*.12
Friend/Co.   1.00.51***.45***.10
FunHabit    1.00.18**.05
Learning     1.00−.02
Identification      1.00

The final set of preliminary analyses examined whether students in classrooms assigned randomly to the four viewing conditions were actually equivalent in their demographic backgrounds, regular media habits, sexual experiences, and perceptions of the clips presented. A series of one-way ANOVAs was conducted to investigate differences between the four conditions on 18 variables representing the central constructs. Significant differences between Experimental and Control group participants, as indicated by Bonferroni post hoc analyses, emerged for three variables (age, perceived clip realism, and clip enjoyment), which served as covariates in later analyses of the experimental data.

Priming Sexual Attitudes: Effects of Experimental Exposure

Our first hypothesis argued that students exposed to clips depicting Sex as Recreation, Women as Sex Objects, or Men as Sex Driven would offer stronger support of corresponding sexual stereotypes or of Stereotypical Gender Roles than students exposed to nonsexual content. Accordingly, analyses of covariance were performed assessing potential Experimental versus Control group differences in students' postexposure sexual attitudes. Included as controls in relevant analyses were the three viewing condition covariates identified above. One-tailed tests of significance were employed drawing on the strength of hypothesis one.

Significant differences emerged for one of the three experimental conditions. Students who had viewed clips depicting Women as Sex Objects offered stronger support for this notion (ME=3.84) than did students in the Control condition (MC=3.28; F(2, 58)=3.58, p=.03, one-tailed test). Students in the Women/Sex Object condition also expressed more Stereotypical Gender Role Attitudes (ME=2.83) than did students in the Control condition (MC=1.93; F(2, 59)=23.63, p<.005, one-tailed test). The sexual attitudes of students who had viewed clips depicting Sex as Recreation or Men as Sex Driven did not differ significantly from those in the Control condition. Thus, support for hypothesis one was produced for one of the three sexual stereotypes.

Associations Between Regular Media Use and Students' Sexual Attitudes

Investigating our second set of hypotheses, we tested whether students' exposure levels, viewing motives, and character identification relate to their sexual attitudes. Multiple regression analyses were performed in which the four sexual attitude variables served as dependent variables, relevant demographic correlates were entered on Step 1, and the seven TV use variables were entered simultaneously as predictors on Step 2. Because laboratory exposure to stimulus clips depicting Women as Sex Objects had affected students' notions about Stereotypical Gender Roles and about women, exposure to this experimental condition was included as a dummy variable in relevant equations. Findings are presented in Table 3.

Table 3. 
Regression Analyses Examining Associations between TV Viewing and Students' Sexual Attitudes
 Stereotypical
Gender Roles
Sex as
Recreation
Men as
Sex Driven
Women as
Sex Objects
  • Note.

  • *

    p<.05.

  • **

    p<.01.

  • ***

    p<.001. Standardized regression coefficients (β's) reported.
    Statistically significant outcomes are bolded for clarity.

Step 1: demographics
 Sex (being male).43***.47***.30***.46***
 Mother's education.15*
 Lab exptl. exposure.15*.03
Adjusted R2.225.187.067.150
F for Step 131.412***23.699***16.091***19.449***
Step 2: media use
 Sexy prime hours−.03.15*.06.11
 Music video hours−.06−.04.07.04
 Talk show hours.15*.11.07−.05
 Friend/Co. motive.12.27***.22**.25**
 Fun/habit motive−.11.16*.18*.17*
 Learning motive.04−.03.03.02
 Identification.03.03.10.16*
Change in adjusted R2+.017+.052**+.047*+.067***
Adjusted R2 for full model.242.239.114.217
F for full model8.433***7.911***4.351***7.437***

Television viewing, in multiple forms, emerged as a significant correlate of students' sexual attitudes. Concerning exposure levels, more frequent viewing of Sexy Prime-Time programming was associated with stronger support of Recreational Sex, and more frequent viewing of talk Shows was associated with stronger endorsement of Stereotypical Gender Roles. Other dimensions of students' media use contributed as well. Specifically, more intentional viewing of TV for Friendship/Companionship was associated with stronger endorsement of Recreational Sex, of Men as Sex Driven, and of Women as Sex Objects. Conversely, watching TV as a Fun Habit was associated with weaker endorsement of each of these three sexual stereotypes. Finally, identifying strongly with popular same-sex characters was associated with greater support of Women as Sex Objects.

Each regression equation was statistically significant, accounting for 11.4–24.2% of the variance in these constructs. Although the demographic correlates explained a significant amount of variance in each equation, with the most substantial portion coming from viewers' sex, the media use variables did increase the adjusted R2 in three of the four regression equations, increasing the amount of variance explained by 28–70%. Thus, the overall patterns indicate that various dimensions of students' exposure levels, viewing motivations, and identification levels are indeed associated with their support of gender and sexual stereotypes, contributing above and beyond viewer demographics.

ASSOCIATIONS BETWEEN REGULAR TV VIEWING AND STUDENTS' SEXUAL BEHAVIOR

The final hypothesis predicted that multiple aspects of media use would correlate with adolescents' levels of sexual experience. Multiple regression analyses were performed in which Level of Dating/Sexual Experience served as the dependent variable, significant demographic correlates were entered on Step 1, and the seven TV use variables were entered as predictors on Step 2. Findings summarized in Table 4 indicate several significant associations. Frequent viewing of both music videos and talk shows were each associated with more advanced levels of Dating/Sexual Experience, as was stronger identification with popular same-sex characters. As predicted, then, the more students were exposed to sexually oriented genres, such as music videos and talk shows, and the more closely they identified with popular characters, the greater their levels of Dating and Sexual Experience. At the same time, none of the viewing motive variables emerged as significant correlates of sexual behavior. Finally, being older and being male were each associated with higher levels of sexual experience, contributing 10.8% of the variance. The TV viewing variables explained an additional 13.1% of the variance, indicating a significant contribution above and beyond viewer demographics.

Table 4. 
Regression Analyses Examining Associations between TV Viewing and Students' Level of Dating/Sexual Experience
 General Level of Dating and Sexual Experience
  • Note.

  • *

    p<.05;

  • **

    p<.01;

  • ***

    p<.001. Standardized regression coefficients (Betas) reported.
    Statistically significant outcomes are bolded for clarity.

Step 1: demographics
 Age.36***
 Sex (male).14*
Adjusted R2.108
F for Step 112.596***
Step 2: media use
 Sexy prime hours.00
 Music video hours.23***
 Talk show hours.19**
 Friend/Co. motive−.11
 Fun/habit motive−.04
 Learning motive−.12
 Identification.15*
Change in adjusted R2+.131***
Adjusted R2 for full model.239
F for full model7.707***

With direct connections now demonstrated between TV viewing and sexual attitudes (A→B), and between TV viewing and sexual behavior (A→C), a final set of analyses was run to determine how students' attitudes perform as potential mediators. These analyses were conducted in two steps, in accordance with guidelines suggested by Baron and Kenney (1986). The first step examined whether students' sexual attitudes correlate with their sexual behavior (B→C). To this end, partial correlation analyses were conducted between the four sexual attitude variables and students' Dating/Sexual Experience levels, controlling for participant age and sex. Significant associations emerged in only one case. Here, stronger endorsement of Men as Sex-Driven was associated with higher Levels of Dating/Sexual Experience, r (215)=.16, p=.015.

As a second step, we examined whether students' support for this notion mediates connections between TV viewing and sexual behavior. Would the direct connections reported earlier between TV viewing and sexual behavior disappear once this sexual attitude was added to the equation? To test this question, a regression equation was constructed in which age, sex, and the three significant TV viewing correlates (Music Videos, Talk Shows, and Identification) were entered on the first step, and the Men as Sex Driven variable was entered on the second step. Although the overall equation was statistically significant, explaining 22.9% of the variance in participants' Sexual Experience Levels, the Men as Sex Driven variable made only a marginal contribution, reporting a Beta coefficient of .12 (p=.074). Moreover, adding this variable to the equation produced only a marginal (+.012) change in the R2, F=3.22, p=.074. However, once this variable was added, the strength of the Identification variable as a correlate was reduced from a β of .135–121, and was no longer significant (p=.06). Overall, only minimal indication emerged that students' sexual attitudes mediate the relation between their TV viewing and their sexual experience level.

DISCUSSION

In acquiring a functional understanding of sexual relationships, adolescents draw information and examples from the world around them, turning frequently to their friends, parents, and the media for insight. Although a number of studies have addressed television's role in this process, few offer possible causal information, only a handful test adolescents, and even fewer have focused on sexual behavior. Drawing from several theoretical perspectives, we sought to address these limitations, seeking experimental and correlational confirmation of TV's contribution to adolescent sexuality. More frequent and more purposeful viewing were each expected to correlate with stronger endorsement of stereotypical beliefs about sexual roles and relationships. Additionally, TV viewing was expected to connect both directly and possibly indirectly to adolescents' sexual behavior. Results demonstrated several significant relations in these areas, offering promising evidence of a link between TV viewing and emergent sexuality.

Addressing our first hypothesis, we found evidence that laboratory exposure to specific sexual stereotypes could indeed affect adolescents' acceptance of these notions. After viewing brief clips featuring women as sexual objects, participants were more likely to endorse this notion and to express more stereotypical attitudes about gender roles than were students exposed to nonsexual content. Although the effects produced by this one exposure are likely to be short lived, they are also likely to be repeated because the stimuli that produced them were drawn from programming that is popular among young viewers (e.g., Friends, Seinfeld). Thus, each time students view comparable scenes and images, it is likely that relevant stereotypic schemas are primed. With each activation, that particular schema or way of viewing the world grows stronger, more accessible, and more valid.

In accordance with our second set of hypotheses, we demonstrated that several dimensions of adolescents' regular media use are associated with their support of sexual stereotypes, illustrating that this is not simply a laboratory phenomenon. As expected, exposure levels mattered, but in a limited way, constrained by genre and by the particular stereotype in question. The significant findings indicated that greater exposure to talk shows and “Sexy” Prime-Time programs is each associated with greater support of stereotypical gender roles and of notions that sex is recreational. Viewer identification played a small role, as well, in that identifying with popular characters, such as Carrie on Sex and the City, was associated with stronger agreement that women are sexual objects. However, identification was not a significant correlate of the other sexual stereotypes.

Instead, students' viewing motives emerged as the most consistent correlate of their sexual belief systems, demonstrating the power of individual needs in shaping media influence. Girls and boys who reported watching TV for companionship were also more likely to agree that sex is recreational, that men are sexually driven, and that women are sexual objects. These findings suggest that teens who are turning to TV as a friend are also more accepting of its dominant messages and may by relying more heavily on media for social norms and values. Previous findings support this notion, revealing that connections between TV viewing and both sexism (Morgan & Rothschild, 1983) and eating and dieting behavior (Stice, Spangler, & Agras, 2001), are stronger among teens with fewer social affiliations. At the same time, watching TV as a fun habit was associated with significantly less support of the three sexual stereotypes. Indeed, adolescents who do not particularly “need” television, who view it as “just something fun to do,” also appear to be less accepting of its dominant sexual messages. Perhaps with satisfactory levels of peer support and other guiding forces in their lives, these teens may be less reliant on the media for sexual schema content. Overall, our findings illustrate several significant connections between TV viewing and teens' sexual attitudes, and demonstrate the utility of considering multiple pathways of media influence. Indeed, exposure levels alone tell only part of the story, and it appears as if cognitions such as viewing motives are stronger correlates of other cognitions, such as beliefs about sexuality.

In accordance with our third hypothesis, we demonstrated that TV viewing does associate directly with adolescents' sexual experience levels, and that these associations remain even when their sexual attitudes are accounted for as possible mediators. More specifically, frequent viewing of music videos and talk shows, and strong identification with same-sex characters were each associated with greater levels of dating/sexual experience. Thus, fitting assumptions of Bandura's Social Cognitive Theory (1994), students reporting greater levels of exposure to TV's sexual scripts and messages, and students reporting stronger connections to its chief characters, also reported greater experience with the types of activities frequently featured (i.e., dating and sexual activity).

At the same time, however, we are mindful, that these are associations, and that directions of causality remain unclear. Indeed, these findings also suggest that students with particular sexual attitudes and experiences select media content that validates their current worldviews. Other work suggests the role of a possible third variable, co-viewing with a boyfriend/girlfriend, which is related both to frequent media use and to greater levels of dating/sexual experience (Sorsoli, Porche, & Tolman, 2005). Because of these complexities, it would be premature to rule out the possibility of mediation effects. Although the four attitudes tested here did not emerge as strong mediators between TV viewing and sexual behavior, other cognitions might. Further study is needed, for example, of the possible mediating role of other sexual attitudes, of students' perceptions of peer norms, and of their perceptions of themselves as sexual beings.

In addition to the many outcomes reported here that met our expectations, several null findings emerged that warrant attention. First, experimental exposure to the sexual stereotypes affected students' attitudes for only one of the three conditions although the same stimuli worked for all three conditions in Ward (2002). Indeed, both regular and experimental exposure associated more strongly with teens' acceptance of women as sexual objects than they did with the other two themes. One interpretation is that the sexual objectification of women is a more salient aspect of young peoples' lives than are the other themes, both in terms of popular media content and adolescent development. From MTV's Spring Break programming to Pepsi commercials featuring Britney Spears, sexually objectifying images of women are prevalent and blatant. At the same time, this theme may resonate especially strongly with adolescent viewers who themselves are very appearance- and body conscious. Consequently, this theme may be more salient to them than notions of dating as a game or of men as sex driven. A second surprising finding was that music video viewing did not correlate with participants' sexual attitudes although this genre is frequently singled-out for its high level of sexual imagery. It is plausible that more fine-tuned assessments of music video viewing are needed. Examinations of preferred genres, channels, or artists, and of music listening may help illuminate these connections.

In sum, our findings suggest that TV use, in multiple forms, appears to be linked with adolescent sexuality in may ways, both shaping and being guided by their early sexual experiences. Although we acknowledge that several factors correlate with early sexual decision making, the contribution of media variables demonstrated here was striking, explaining an additional 13% of the variance in sexual behavior and 5–7% in sexual attitudes. Including media use as a factor in future models of adolescent sexual decision-making may help to explain portions of the variance currently unaccounted for.

Although the current study expands our understanding of television's role as a sexual educator, additional investigation is needed to fully explicate these relations and to address existing limitations. First, the reliability of our sexual attitude subscales was lower than ideal, ranging from .67 to .77. Continued development of these constructs is needed to produce more reliable measures. Second, this study assessed students' exposure to only three TV genres, capturing a small segment of their media diets. Future research will need to examine other genres and media, including reality programming, films, and magazines. Moreover, additional investigation is needed of the mechanisms behind the genre-specific findings uncovered here. Do different genres convey different messages about sexuality or do students turn to them for different reasons? Finally, our conclusions are limited by the homogeneity of the sample. Tested here were the media habits and sexual attitudes of students attending one public high school in Long Island that serves a predominantly Jewish and middle-class population. Although our findings mirror those of earlier work (e.g., Ward, 2002) and match theoretical expectations, we caution against generalizing these findings to all adolescent populations. Further testing will want to investigate these dynamics among lower income White youth and among ethnic minority youth, who typically report higher levels of media use (Roberts et al., 2005).

Although this study examined how media use relates directly to adolescents' sexual attitudes and behavior, it is also likely that these associations hold implications for other domains as well. For example, accepting the notion that women are sexual objects may affect adolescent girls' perceptions of themselves as sexual subjects. Indeed, Objectification Theory argues that viewing oneself as a sexual object and objectifying one's body can cause women to become distanced from their internal states, and can lead to increased shame and anxiety, sexual dysfunction, and depression (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Accepting these stereotypes could also shape girls' and boys' perceived worth and power on the dating market, their tolerance of disrespectful behavior (e.g., “boys will be boys”), and the importance they assign to their own sexuality and to heterosexual success. Because developing a healthy approach to sexuality is a major developmental task of adolescence, greater acceptance of these stereotypes might derail some early efforts. With U.S. adolescents and pre-teens devoting more time to TV than to almost any other waking activity, this medium is likely to play a prominent role in guiding their early beliefs about the ways of the world.

Footnotes

  1. 1Details about this factor analysis are available upon request from the first author.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2003 biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Tampa, Florida, and as an entry for the 2002–2003 Intel Science Talent Search. The authors would like to thank Wendy Friedman, Andrew Smiler, and several anonymous reviewers for their assistance with this project.

AUTHOR NOTES

L. Monique Ward, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan.

Kimberly Friedman is an undergraduate at the University of Michigan.

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