American society is both one of the most litigious and one of the most violent in the world. But violence is not the only cultural quagmire: Sexual promiscuity -- along with the itinerant sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies -- is another cultural minefield. And of course, racism, drug use and alcohol abuse are other major, seemingly unsolvable problems.
A common thread behind these social problems is the fact that social critics and activists blame television and its centrality to American culture for all. Television's pervasiveness especially among children is the concern. Today, often with both parents working and out of the house, latchkey kids come home from school and immediately turn on the television and start absorbing its disparate and often uncontrolled and only lightly censored messages.
Consequently, activists point their finger at television for corrupting the minds of our youth and steering them down a path of drug use, irresponsible sex, racism and, of course, most prominently, violence.
Researchers have shown several links between the content of television programs and these social plagues, but applying a balancing test, the correlations are relatively attenuated and the cost of our first amendment freedoms far outweigh any benefits of censoring television programs.
Televisions and Irresponsible Sex in America
A recent RAND study has shown a very disturbing link between television watching and children's less responsible sexual activity. RAND reports that the average American teenager watches three hours of television a day. Typical teen shows contain "heavy doses of sexual content, ranging from touching, kissing, jokes, and innuendo to conversations about sexual activity and portrayals of intercourse. Sex is often presented as a casual activity without risk or consequences. Conventional wisdom holds that the messages young viewers absorb from television promote sexual activity in this group. Yet, despite the prevalence of this view, there has been little empirical study to date of how watching sex on television influences teenagers' sexual behavior." (RAND, 1)
Two recent studies led by RAND Health behavioral scientist Rebecca Collins examine the force of TV sex on teenagers' sexual beliefs and activities. The results clearly put forth the view that watching shows with sexual content may influence teen sexual behavior, but also found that some viewing effects can be positive as well. (RAND, 1)
Of the key findings, Collins reported that teens who watch a lot of television with sexual content are more likely to initiate sexual intercourse during the forthcoming year. Also, television programming that discusses sexual activity affects teenagers just as much as programming that depicts and actually shows sexual activity. However, on the flip side, shows that discuss the risks of sexual activity actually slow irresponsible sexual acts on teenagers' parts.
These mixed findings are incredibly helpful in determining the impact of television on teenagers' sexual decisions. First, the fact that teens who watch a lot of television programming with sexual content are more likely to initiate sexual intercourse during the forthcoming year is important in its generality. The research does not distinguish between television programming with just spurious sexual content, or television programming with sexual content that actually discusses the risks of sexual activity. As a result, without controlling for the seemingly positive programming, the harm that sexual content causes in general is even more pronounced. Presumably, simply the appearance of sexual content in television programming results in more teenagers initiating sexual intercourse in the forthcoming year.
Of course, that is also one of the limitations of the research; it is not ideal to point to the lack of control in a research methodology to support a point. However, given that caveat, it is incredibly sobering that even purportedly positive appearances of sexual themes in television shows result in the greater initiation of sexual activity in America's teenage population.
And the fact that RAND researched the "initiation" of sexual intercourse also leaves open the possibility of sexual aggression; this, of course, in turn opens up the possibility of depictions of rape influencing teenagers to commit some form of the crime themselves. Or, perhaps it may raise rates of less egregious sexual aggression, or other forms of rape, such as date rape.
Then, moving onto the next prong of the RAND study, the discussion of sexual activity has the same result as the depiction of sexual activity. This is perhaps the most sobering revelation of all. After all, most television programs will censor actual depiction of sexual acts in favor of alluding to them and excessive sexual innuendo throughout the program.
For instance, in the film "When Harry Met Sally," very little in the way of sexual activity is depicted, but sex is constantly discussed, with, of course, the famous scene of Meg Ryan demonstrating faking an orgasm at a diner. Films like that are not censored for their sexual language, innuendo and conversation on television; rather, they are show in their entirety, without possibly some censoring of the profanity alone. According to the RAND study, this partial censorship accomplishes nothing as discussions of sexual activity are just as suggestive and therefore harmful to teenagers as are depictions of sexual activity.
This means, of course, that our policy measures are failing miserably, as their focus is completely askew. Research like this is not only helpful in determining the linkages between irresponsible sexual activity in teenagers and television programming, but also whether our actions based on assumptions are correct or incorrect in rectifying the problem.
Finally, the RAND study points out that there are positive benefits to discussions or depictions of sexual activity on television: "Shows that portray the risks of sex can help educate teens." (RAND, 1) This finding does not contradict the first finding that implies that even positive portrayals -- meaning, portrayals including the risks of sexual activity -- increase the chance that teenagers will initiate sexual intercourse. This finding shows that careful measures will be followed by those teenagers; teenagers seeing the risks of sexual activity on television may initiate sexual intercourse more often, but they may also use protection to insure against unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
So, as a result, the final prong of the RAND study shows that there are positive benefits to portraying sexual activity on television as well, not just the negative repercussions of both depictions and discussions of sexual activity on the formative minds of teenagers.
Television and Drug Use
"Young people today are surrounded by messages that say drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes or cigars are normal activities. These messages don't say that alcohol and tobacco harm people and may lead to death. Beer and wine are some of the most advertised products on television. TV programs and commercials often show people who drink and smoke as healthy, energetic, sexy, and successful. It is up to you to teach your child the truth about the dangers of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs." (AAP, 1)
This message, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, is very haunting indeed. It shows the proliferation of images of drug and alcohol abuse among teenagers as a result of images of drugs and alcohol on television, both in normal programming and in commercials.
In a study commissioned by Mediascope, Stanford University researchers examined the exact number of appearances of drugs, alcohol and tobacco in television programming watched by children.
The study examined four consecutive episodes from the 42 top rated situational comedies and dramas using the Nielson Ratings system and findings. The study dealt with shows that were popular among African-American teenagers, Hispanic teenagers and white teenagers. Notably missing from the study were Native American and Asian-American teenagers' favorite shows.
In 77% of the shows, alcohol was discussed or seen; illicit drugs were seen or discussed in 20% of the shows; and tobacco products were discussed or seen in 22% of the shows. (Christensen, 5)
These are incredibly high numbers that doubtless expose to teenagers to drugs, alcohol and tobacco at a very young age. The study was conducted in 2000, so granted, mentions of tobacco products have most probably declined since then, as the preponderance of tobacco in our society has declined significantly.
However, the numbers, especially for alcohol, are incredibly high. With the frequency of the appearances of these harmful substances, it is absolutely no wonder that teenagers are prone to addictions at early ages to alcohol, tobacco and illicit and illegal drugs.
And of course, alcohol and tobacco go hand in hand with our next section for discussion, violence. Drugs and alcohol not only drive teenagers to violence, the need for the substances and the capital to purchase those substances results in much of the inner city violence in America harming teenagers.
Another study has shown that "Increased television and music video viewing are risk factors for the onset of alcohol use in adolescents. Attempts to prevent adolescent alcohol use should address the adverse influences of alcohol use in the media." (Robinson, 4)
The results indicate that television and music video viewing are independent risk factors for the start…