Kids get more sex education from TV, music videos, and the Internet—let's make that Jersey Shore, 50 Cent, and XXX-rated websites—than they do from their parents and teachers, and that's not a good thing, according to the nation's pediatricians. They're calling on parents to step up and help children learn how to become responsible sexual human beings.
Clearly we parents aren't doing a very good job of that now. The United States boasts the highest rate of teen pregnancies in the developed world, and 25 percent of American teenagers have a sexually transmitted disease (STD). But we parents could really use some help. Many moms and dads shy away from talking about sex with their children. So instead, teenagers learn about sex from TV, where 70 percent of teen shows contain sexual content, and less than 10 percent of those shows give examples of responsible sexual behavior, such as delaying sexual activity or reducing the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, according to a new report on teens, sex, and the media from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The AAP is encouraging pediatricians to ask two questions at every well-child visit in order to judge how a child's media use may be affecting his or her health: whether a child has a TV or computer in the bedroom and the amount of screen time a child takes in daily.
Although those questions may help identify when a child has a problem with media use, dealing with it will be up to the parents. Parents have the most control over their child's media use, and the biggest potential for positive impact. Here are three recommendations for parents on how to handle sex and the media from Victor Strasburger, lead author of the new report and chief of adolescent medicine at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine:
Limit all screen media time to a maximum of two hours a day. This not only reduces the dose of sexually inappropriate content a child gets daily, but leaves time for other things, like homework, sports, friends, and family.
Get the TV and computer out of children's bedrooms. Parents can't know what media children are consuming if their kids are holed up in their rooms. Having a TV in the bedroom is linked to lower grades and higher rates of obesity, too.
Use sex in the media to do on-the-spot sexual education on a regular basis, rather than having one big talk. A parent can watch TV with a teenager and note that sexual relationships don't work that way in real life, or that the reason the girl with the tight T-shirt is in the commercial is to sell more beer.
That last point may sound terrifying, but Diane Levin, coauthor of the book So Sexy So Soon, says that asking teenagers why they like certain shows or songs can provide a great opportunity to talk about sexual issues in a way that's fairly comfortable. Parents can watch with a child and point out specific images or acts, and explain why they find those sexual or violent images disturbing or inappropriate. As a result, teenagers gain a better understanding of sex in the real world, as well as of their parent's ethical and moral standards.
The pediatricians also put in a plea for less sexual imagery on TV, and a ban on ads for erectile dysfunction drugs until after 10 p.m. Good luck on that one, doctors. But it would be nice to not have to try and explain to children why the gray-haired people get all cuddly after popping blue pills.