Measuring the Effects of Sexual Content in the Media:  A Report to the Kaiser Family Foundation – Report

Measuring the Effects of Sexual Content in the Media: A Report to the Kaiser Family Foundation

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Author: Drs. Aletha C. Huston, Ellen Wartella, and Edward Donnerstein

Executive Summary

The Kaiser Family Foundation has an ongoing interest in sexual health among young people and the potential contributions of mass media to sexual behavior. This report was prepared at the request of the Foundation to examine the methodological options for investigating the effects of sexual content in the media on children and adolescents. In preparing the report, we convened a Forum of twenty scholars with expertise in sexuality, sexual development, media analysis, and media effects to discuss these issues.

The purposes of this report are to review what we know about the relations of entertainment media to sexual development during childhood and adolescence, to consider methodological issues and challenges in studying this topic, and to propose some fruitful directions for future research.

There are many opinions about the effects of sexual content in the mass media, and they are often couched in political or religious overtones. This report is not intended to debate these opinions, rather, it is a review and discussion of social scientific methods which provide publicly shared, objective, empirical, and replicable information that can be used to build a cumulative body of knowledge of this area.

Although the effects of sexual content have received relatively little attention from researchers, there have been content analytic studies of the portrayals of sexuality in television and movies and there is evidence that sexual messages in entertainment media have been increasing.

Studies of sexual messages in movies and on television (prime-time, soaps, and music videos have been studied most heavily) have found that over the past twenty years, there has been an overall increase in the number of portrayals and the amount of talk about sex in these media and an increase in the explicitness of these portrayals. Furthermore, the television research shows a fairly consistent sexual message across TV genres: most portrayals of sex depict or imply heterosexual intercourse between unmarried adults, with little reference to STDs/AIDS, pregnancy, or use of contraception.

There are sound theoretical reasons to believe that television and other media can play an important role in educating children and adolescents about sexuality. Media portrayals surround children and adolescents, and young people are intensely interested in sexuality, romance, and relationships.

Yet, there are very, very few studies of the effects of sexual messages in the media on child and adolescent viewers. The few experimental studies show that television has the potential to change viewers' attitudes and knowledge. Correlational designs provide weak evidence that television viewing is linked with sexual behavior and beliefs, but the measures of viewing are crude at best. There also is some evidence that such personal factors as interest in sexual content, level of understanding, perceived reality, and parental mediation modify the influence of sexual messages. Much more empirical work is needed to substantiate the claim that naturally occurring sexual content in the media actually does cause changes in attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Such changes need to be examined as a function of what individuals are watching, the messages they are receiving, how they are interpreting them, and other factors that influence a young person's sexual personae.

Two approaches to sexual development are reviewed in this report. Healthy sex, or the role of sex in individual mental health and in healthy relationships, focuses on enabling people of all ages to develop the attitudes, values, and behaviors that promote healthy sexual functioning. In this approach, sex is considered good and essential to human functioning. The second orientation, sexual health, has a narrower focus based in public health concerns about the physical disease, mental health, and social problems that can arise from sexual behavior. The majority of the literature in this area is concerned with STDs, including HIV, and unwanted, early, or out-of-wedlock pregnancy, but sexual violence and coercion, including rape, and mental health problems (e.g., depression, low self-esteem, distorted body image) also are considered. The sexual health literature tends to focus on prevention through encouraging young people to abstain from or postpone sexual intercourse, especially with multiple partners, and by encouraging them to use “safer sex” practices when they do have intercourse.

Research designed to understand the influence of mass media on sexual health must be informed by an understanding of the developmental changes in sexuality during childhood and adolescence, as well as socioeconomic, cultural, family, and peer influences. At the very least many of these influences must be controlled in studying media effects. Perhaps more important, it is likely that the processes involved and outcomes of interest will differ for different groups of young people. If we are to completely understand the effects of sexual content in the media we need to consider a range of outcomes — cognitive, emotional, attitudinal, behavioral — either separately or in combination with one other. In addition, we need to be cognizant of vast individual differences in how viewers respond to sexual depictions.

There are several inherent ethical and practical problems in doing research on children's and adolescents' sexual knowledge, attitudes, and behavior. The broad outline of these issues can be subsumed under several general principles regarding the protection of human subjects, which have been articulated by the federal research directors. Specific concerns regarding how various institutional research boards (IRBs) interpret these general guidelines, and gaining parental consent when children and adolescents are the subjects in a study also pose barriers to research.

The report suggests that researchers can design and conduct important research within these national and local guidelines. We recommend research based on the following premises:

  1. Research in this area should be conducted by interdisciplinary teams of investigators, with expertise in the area of sexual development and others with expertise in media research.
  2. There is need for an accumulated body of systematic studies using a variety of methods with a variety of populations. Given the paucity of available studies and the need to develop a systematic research base, no one grand study will provide definitive answers.
  3. Research on the effects of sexual media content should in general begin with small-scale studies and move to larger field and longitudinal studies. Small-scale studies (laboratory, survey, observational) can permit refinement of questions, measures and methods in a relatively low-cost and efficient way.
  4. Research must take into account developmental, gender and ethnic differences. The functions and effects of sexual media content in sexual development may vary substantially for boys and girls, for different ethnic groups, and across different age groups.
  5. There is a need for the development of valid and reliable measures of the use of media sexual content and of outcome measures of sexual knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. One cannot generalize the validity or reliability of measures used with adult populations to children and adolescents particularly in this research domain.

In addition to the premises laid out above, the report provides some more specific recommendations about what kinds of studies should be conducted. We encourage researchers to think creatively about additional research design options.

There is little existing research literature that addresses the issue of children's media use patterns. Any attempt to understand the influence of media on young people should begin with an assessment of both the amount and patterns of media use among children. Given the recent explosion in new media choices such as the Internet, computer games, and niche cable channels, it is imperative that we have an understanding of what media kids are using, and how and why they are using them.

Though many studies have looked at the amount and nature of sexual depictions on television, future content analyses should be more theoretically guided and contextually situated. Future research should include in its framework theories about sexuality, sexual development, and media effects. In addition, most content analyses have been limited to certain genres of television programming. Future content analyses should include cable programming, advertising, news, talk shows and new media.

In studying the effects of sexual media content on viewers, it is important to consider the various types of outcomes, including cognitive, emotional, attitudinal, and behavioral. In the early stages of conducting research on this topic, small experimental studies are likely to be more useful than correlational studies. Some of the proposed experimental techniques include manipulating outcomes of sexual media messages to measure immediate effects on children's knowledge, schemas, attitudes and even behaviors.

A second phase of research could employ the field experiment technique, best used in cooperation with the media industry. The body of the report identifies two successful examples of field experiments, and recommendations for future field experiments on sexual content.

Once preliminary research is conducted on the effects of sexual content, an accelerated longitudinal design with overlapping cohorts would be the next recommended approach. This design would maximize the information obtainable in a five-year period, and would allow for follow-up in later years, were funding available.

Our final recommendation concerns the process for bootstrapping research in this entire area. As we have previously noted there is little systematic knowledge about the effects of sexual content. We certainly encourage research across many disciplines and funding agencies (both federal and private), but a central guiding framework is needed. We believe that an initiative akin to the Surgeon General's 1970 study of Television and Social Behavior would be useful. A collaborative effort by the Kaiser Family Foundation, working with other foundations, could produce a coordinated research base collected in a major report that would provide a solid foundation for understanding the effects of sexual media content and could serve as a basis for future funding and research.

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Measuring the Effects of Sexual Content in the Media

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