HANOVER, New Hampshire, July 24, 2012 ( – Researchers at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College are urging parents to protect their children from sexual content in films as they release a new six-year study that found viewing such content has a significant impact on the sexual behaviour of young adults.

“Adolescents who are exposed to more sexual content in movies start having sex at younger ages,” says Dr. Ross O’Hara, adding that they also tend to have “more sexual partners” and indulge in risky sexual behaviour.

Now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Missouri, O’Hara conducted the research while he was a PhD student at Dartmouth. The study’s findings will be published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Before recruiting participants for the study, O’Hara and his fellow researchers surveyed 684 top-grossing movies from 1998 to 2004. They coded the movies for seconds of sexual content, like heavy kissing or sexual intercourse.

The researchers then recruited 1,228 participants, from 12 to 14 years old. Each participant reported which movies they had seen, from collections of fifty randomly selected movies.

Six years later, the participants were surveyed to find out how old they were when they became sexually active, how many partners they had, and how risky their sexual behavior might have been. According to O’Hara, those who had been exposed to high levels of sexual content on film had more sexual partners, indulged in riskier sexual behaviour, and became sexually active earlier.

“These movies appear to fundamentally influence their personality through changes in sensation-seeking, ” O’Hara says, “which has far-reaching implications for all of their risk-taking behaviors.”

O’Hara and his colleagues found that greater exposure to sexual content in movies at a young age led to a higher peak in sensation-seeking during adolescence. As a result, sensation seeking sexual behavior can last well into the late teens and even into the early twenties if young people are exposed to these kinds of movies.

But sensation seeking did not entirely explain these effects; the researchers also speculate that adolescents learn specific behaviors from the sexual messages in movies. Many adolescents turn to movies to acquire “sexual scripts” that offer examples of how to behave when confronted with complicated emotional situations.

For 57 percent of American adolescents between the ages of 14 and 16, the media is their greatest source of sexual information. They often don’t differentiate between what they see on the screen and what they must confront in daily life.

Researchers point out that it is important to remember that this research cannot conclude a direct causal effect of movies on sexual behavior. Nonetheless, O’Hara says, “This study, and its confluence with other work, strongly suggests that parents need to restrict their children from seeing sexual content in movies at young ages.”


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