In addition, emerging evidence suggests that young children process fictional media differently from real events. If small children are able to process a difference between fictional events and real events, we can assume that teens don’t really expect media to reflect reality.
Our results regarding the limited impact of media also fit with the observations from societal data. Despite a plethora of sexual media available to teens, a crisis of risky teen sexual behavior has not emerged.
We watch what we're interested in watching
Newer models of media use suggest that it is the individuals who consume media, not the media itself, who are the driving agents of behavior. Evidence suggests that users seek out and interpret media according to what they want to get from it, rather than passively imitating it.
People don’t generally accidentally watch media, sexual or otherwise, but are motivated to do so because of preexisting desires.
For instance, some recent studies have indicated that youth seek out media that fit with preexisting motives, called a selection effect, but that media don’t necessarily lead to further problem behaviors. For example, research suggests that some teens who are already aggressive might be interested in violent video games, but playing such games doesn’t make kids more aggressive.
That’s a point that sometimes seems ignored when we talk about teens and sex. Interest in sex is a largely biologically motivated process; fictional media really isn’t required. Teens will become interested in sex all on their own.
Parents have more influence than the media
Parents can rest a bit easier since the evidence suggests that media isn’t a primary driver of teen sexuality.
To the extent media has any impact at all, it is likely only in a vacuum left by adults reluctant to talk to kids about sex, especially the stuff kids really want to know.
How do you ask someone out on a date and how do you handle it if they say no? What does sex feel like? When is it OK to have sex? What are the risks and how do you avoid them? In the face of patient, empathic and informative discussions about sex by adults kids trust, the media likely has little influence.
Ultimately, whether media have salacious or more conscientious portrayals of sexuality, we should not expect media to replace conversations with youth by parents, guardians and educators.
I’m not suggesting everyone run out and buy 50 Shades of Grey for their teen, but if teens happen to come across it (and they will), it’s not the end of the world.
The important thing for parents is to talk to their kids.
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