Aug. 30, 2010 -- Kids spend more than seven hours a day glued to the TV or online, where they are bombarded with mixed, unrealistic, and confusing messages about sex, sexuality, and contraception. Parents, pediatricians, and educators need to step up efforts to buck these trends, according to a revised policy statement issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The new recommendations appear in the September issue of Pediatrics.
"Parents need to realize that the media are teaching their kids about sex. And if they don't encourage schools to teach comprehensive sex education then their kids will learn a whole lot that parents are not happy with," says Victor C. Strasburger, MD, chief of the division of adolescent medicine at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.
Many schools have an abstinence-only curriculum, while the media portray casual sex and sexuality without lasting consequences, Strasburger writes. And, he adds, society is paying the price: kids are having sex earlier, one in four U.S. teens has had a sexually transmitted diseases (STD), and the U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the Western Hemisphere.
Parents can start taking sex ed back by limiting TV time to less than two hours a day and keeping the TV or Internet out of kids' bedrooms, Strasburger says. In addition, "watching TV and movies with your child or teenager can be a great way of talking about controversial subjects," he suggests.
"Sex education starts from the minute they change their baby's diaper and what they refer to babies' genitalia as, whether the parents leave the door open while they are in the bathroom, run around the house naked or half naked, or blush when something sexy comes on TV," he says. "This is all sex education, and kids are little sponges that soak it all up."
Media Responsibility Urged
The new recommendations, which were last updated in 2001, also call on the entertainment industry to produce more responsible sexual content and focus on relationships, not just sex. They also urge advertisers to stop using sex to sell, and specifically stress that ads for erectile dysfunction (ED) should not be broadcast until after 10 p.m.
These ads are confusing, he tells WebMD. "It is hypocritical to spend half a billion dollars on drugs for ED, but not be able to advertise for birth control pills, condoms, or emergency contraception," he says. While there are ads for oral contraceptives, most focus on benefits beyond pregnancy prevention such as premenstrual syndrome. And condoms are only advertised as a means to prevent sexually transmitted disease, not pregnancy, he says.
"We need to take back the agenda," agrees Diane Levin, PhD, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston and the author of So Sexy, So Soon. "The media is providing an incrediblydestructive sex education for our youth, and then we are fighting over what we teach them in schools. It's a horror show," she says. "Parent and schools must work together."
Kimberly Spector, an adolescent-health educator in Los Angeles, says that parents and teachers must also figure out how to partner with the media. "We need to figure out how to work with mass media to educate young people," she says. "Maybe during sex scenes, they would be willing include information in a news ticker pointing viewers to educational web sites. Maybe music sites can incorporate sexual health advisories and resource lists into music downloads containing sexually explicit lyrics."
"As a community, we need to take every opportunity to infuse young peoples' favorite media experiences with the information they need to round out their understanding of sex and sexuality," she says. "If we can get the hang of it, celebrities, pop music, and the Internet will be our greatest allies in raising a new generation of more informed, empowered, and sexually responsible young people."
Teens Need Accurate Information
"Teens should have access to complete and medically accurate information about sexual and reproductive health, which includes responsible programming from the entertainment industry and comprehensive sex education in schools," adds Rachel Jones, PhD, a senior research associate at the Allen Guttmacher Institute, a group that promotes research and awareness on sexual and reproductive health issues.
If parents and doctors speak about sex, kids will listen, she says.
"Teens obtain sexual health information from a wide range of sources -- including media sources such as television, movies, magazines, and the Internet, but teens typically view this information as superficial or untrustworthy," she says. "Teens' most common and most trusted sources for sexual health information are educators and family members. And while many teens do not have in-depth conversations with health professionals about these issues, they place a great amount of trust in what their health care providers say when it comes to sexual health."