Background: Adolescents in the United States are engaging in sexual activity at early ages and with multiple partners. The mass media have been shown to affect a broad range of adolescent health-related attitudes and behaviors including violence, eating disorders, and tobacco and alcohol use. One largely unexplored factor that may contribute to adolescents' sexual activity is their exposure to mass media.
Objective: We sought to determine of what is and is not known on a scientific basis of the effects of mass media on adolescent sexual attitudes and behaviors. Method. We performed an extensive, systematic review of the relevant biomedical and social science literature and other sources on the sexual content of various mass media, the exposure of adolescents to that media, the effects of that exposure on the adolescents' sexual attitudes and behaviors, and ways to mitigate those effects. Inclusion criteria were: published in 1983-2004, inclusive; published in English; peer-reviewed (for effects) or otherwise authoritative (for content and exposure); and a study population of American adolescents 11 to 19 years old or comparable groups in other postindustrial English-speaking countries. Excluded from the study were populations drawn from college students.
Results: Although television is subject to ongoing tracking of its sexual content, other media are terra incognita. Data regarding adolescent exposure to various media are, for the most part, severely dated. Few studies have examined the effects of mass media on adolescent sexual attitudes and behaviors: only 12 of 2522 research-related documents (<1%) involving media and youth addressed effects, 10 of which were peer reviewed. None can serve as the grounding for evidence-based public policy. These studies are limited in their generalizability by their cross-sectional study designs, limited sampling designs, and small sample sizes. In addition, we do not know the long-term effectiveness of various social-cultural, technologic, and media approaches to minimizing that exposure (eg, V-Chips on television, Internet-filtering-software, parental supervision, rating systems) or minimizing the effects of that exposure (eg, media-literacy programs).
Conclusions: Research needs to include development of well-specified and robust research measures and methodologies; ongoing national surveillance of the sexual content of media and the exposure of various demographic subgroups of adolescents to that content; and longitudinal studies of the effects of that exposure on the sexual decision-making, attitudes, and behaviors of those subgroups. Additional specific research foci involve the success of various types of controls in limiting exposure and the mitigative effects of, for example, parental influence and best-practice media-literacy programs.