Many parents have concerns about their children being exposed to sex and violence in films, and a recent study suggests that parents’ worst fears about Hollywood films might be valid.
The research, which was published in Psychological Science, found that movie content can impact a teen’s sexual decisions down the road. The researchers tracked the sexual content of movies released between 1998 and 2004, and then they asked teens which of the popular films they had seen. Six years later, they followed up with these same students, and their findings were troubling.
According to the researchers, the teens who had seen sexually charged films were more likely to have lost their virginity earlier, more likely to have multiple partners, and also more likely to practice unsafe sex. Teens who had not viewed such sexual content were less likely to have such sexual experiences.
Does this mean that Hollywood is the main influence on our teens when they are making decisions about sex?
Not necessarily. However, it does suggest that teenagers desperately need boundaries and guidance when it comes to navigating the new and confusing world of sex. Sexual content in movies can increase their curiosity and normalize such exploration, but the reality is that these sexual desires are a natural part of growing up, and they would exist even without R-rated flicks.
However, learning about sex from the movies can be dangerous (when is the last time you saw a silver-screen couple use condoms before a hookup?) and can also be very confusing and intimidating for a teen. Here’s what parents can do:
- Make sure your teens are viewing movies that are age-appropriate. The same goes for television (plots these days incorporate sexually explicit scenes, along with underage drinking and partying). Read reviews ahead of time or research movies before giving your teens permission to head to the theater.
- Talk about what’s on-screen. If you find out that your teens have seen a movie with sex in it, or if you think their friends have seen it and are likely discussing it, bring it up as a teachable moment. Say something like: “I hear that everyone is talking about that new movie. There are some pretty adult scenes in there. Do you think that’s appropriate for kids your age? Is anyone at your school saying things about it?” Sure, they may be uncomfortable and quiet at first, but when they realize that it is an open discussion and that they aren’t going to get in trouble for expressing their ideas or questions, they’ll open up and share what’s on their minds.
- Talk about how the movies aren’t real life. You might think that teenagers know this already, but the reality is that even adults can get caught up in the romance of Hollywood. We forget that sex isn’t always perfect and without consequences, and that one-night stands are rarely mind-blowing and mutually pleasurable. Talk about how movies portray sex in a very unrealistic way (especially when it comes to safer-sex practices) and how their first time ought to be special and meaningful, not something that arises due to peer pressure. You can even use this study as yet another teachable moment and say something like, “Studies such as these are good because they remind kids that they have to make their own decisions and be strong when it comes to their personal values. No one should pressure anyone into having sex before he or she is ready, whether it’s your boyfriend or girlfriend or a movie.”
Lastly, encourage your teens to always come to you with questions and fears. Remind them that you are there to listen anytime; also encourage them to talk to their doctor or a trusted counselor if they feel they have a matter they cannot discuss with you.
The most important thing is to get them communicating and involved: When teens are empowered and given the education they need to protect their bodies, they are more likely to make safer choices and take care of themselves, inside and out.