Watching sexy movies and TV shows or accessing sexually explicit content online may influence how teens have sex — but only slightly, new research finds.
Teenagers in the Netherlands who watch sexually explicit media are more likely than other teens to have sex for money and to try new sexual behaviors, according to a new study published Thursday (April 25) in The Journal of Sexual Medicine. However, the links were small, accounting for only 0.3 percent to 4 percent of the differences in behaviors.
"Our data suggest that other factors such as personal dispositions — specifically sensation-seeking — rather than consumption of sexually explicit material may play a more important role in a range of sexual behaviors of adolescents and young adults," study researcher Gert Martin Hald, a psychologist at the University of Copenhagen, said in a statement. [10 Facts About the Teen Brain]
Hald and his colleagues surveyed 4,600 15- to 25-year-olds online about their sexual activities and the sorts of media they consumed. They found that 88 percent of men and 45 percent of women had viewed some sort of sexually explicit media, whether via television, magazines, movies or online, in the past year.
The study can't prove that the media itself caused the sexual behavior, only that teens and young adults who watch more sex-related media also tend to have more or more varied sex. This is far from the first study to find that link. One 2011 study published in the Journal of Sex Research queried American college students and also found that viewing more sexually explicit material was correlated with more casual intercourse and first sex at a younger age.
In the United States, at least, a third of teens report sexual activity by age 16, with 71 percent having a sexual experience by 18, according to research published in April in the journal Pediatrics. Older teens actually appear to be delaying sex longer than in the past, said study researcher Lawrence Finer of the Guttmacher Institute, and they are more likely to use contraceptives when they do have sex. These factors may explain the declining teen pregnancy rate, which hit a 40-year low in the United States in 2012.
Another 2006 study surveyed 12- to 14-year-olds at two points two years apart and found that the more sexual content they consumed at those ages, the more likely they were to have sex by age 16. Again, these studies could not confirm that the media caused the sexual behavior or rule out that another factor — such as greater interest in sex in general — was at play.
The new study suggests that a variety of factors, including personality, must be at play in determining when and how teens have sex, Hald said.
"The effects of sexually explicit media on sexual behaviors in reality need to be considered in conjunction with such factors," he said.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.