Teen boys who watch a lot of TV and also have a close relationship with their mother are more susceptible to harmful stereotypical views of women and sex, a new study shows. For girls glued to the boob tube, however, a strong attachment to mom acts as a buffer against television's negative effect on sexual views.
Previous studies have shown that mothers play a role in children's opinions regarding mainstream sexual attitudes and sexual responsibility. Researchers from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium set out to determine whether a close relationship with mom can protect teens from the negative effects that TV has on sexual attitudes.
The researchers surveyed 1,026 16-year-olds from nine schools in Belgium, asking them questions about their views on commitment in relationships, casual sex and traditional gender roles. The teens also anonymously answered questions about the amount of TV they watched a day as well as their level of attachment to their mother.
The researchers found that, on average, the teenagers watched more than 23 hours of TV a week, or more than three hours a day. And the more TV they watched — especially the boys — the more likely they were to support casual sex, agreeing with statements, such as, "It's OK to have ongoing sexual relationships with more than one person at a time." The TV-watchers were also more likely than those who watched less TV to agree with gender stereotypes, such as, "Males are sexually dominant."
The study authors noted that TV shows in both Belgium and the U.S. often contain messages regarding recreational sexual activities, but hardly mention the risks and responsibilities associated with sex. Most TV shows, the authors found, also depict traditional gender roles, with "males portrayed as dominant, sexually obsessed characters and females as attractive sex objects," the authors wrote in a recent issue of the journal Sex Roles.
Overall, among teens who didn't watch as much TV, maternal attachment was shown to have a positive influence on their sexual attitudes. For these teens, the more attached an adolescent was to his or her mother, the less they agreed with statements about stereotypical gender roles and casual sex.
The researchers found that, overall, the girls had a greater maternal attachment than boys, and that boys held a more recreational attitude toward sex than girls. Boys were also significantly more likely than girls to agree with statements regarding male sexual dominance.
When mothers were brought into the mix, however, a gender difference was found for TV watchers. Teen girls who were more securely attached to their mothers appeared to be less susceptible to TV's influence on sexual attitudes. However, a close relationship with their mothers did not have the same positive effect on the teen boys: those who were more securely attached to their mothers were actually more susceptible to the negative influence of TV-viewing on attitudes toward casual sex and gender role stereotypes.
The researchers aren't sure why having a close relationship with mom makes teen boys more susceptible to the gender stereotypes and sexual messages they see on TV, though they offer a couple of possibilities. For instance, teen girls who watch TV may have a defensive reaction to the traditional sex roles portrayed. In addition, the stereotypes used in study were of males, and teen guys may identify more with male characters and so would easily identify with and support these stereotypes.
The researchers suggest further research is needed to tease out the reasons behind the gender differences found in the study.