chapter  26
7 Pages

Media and sexual development

ByJochen Peter

Adolescents in high resource countries currently grow up in a media-saturated, technology-oriented environment (Rideout et al., 2010). One important consequence of this environment is that adolescents have gained easy access to sexual media content (SMC) of varying degrees of explicitness. Traditional media that adolescents use, such as television and magazines, increasingly feature sexual content (for summaries, see Brown, 2009; Ward, 2003). Similarly, sex and sexual themes often occur in movies and notably in music popular among adolescents (Pardun et al., 2005). Finally, pornographic content is easily available on the internet and is used by a substantial number of adolescents (e.g., Wolak et al., 2007). The growing availability of SMC for adolescents has led to opposite reactions in the scholarly

community. Some scholars have suggested that the easy accessibility of SMC, particularly of internet pornography, may have negative consequences for adolescents’ sexual development (e.g., Zillmann, 2000). These concerns are typically based on three assumptions. First, content analyses have shown that the representation of sex and sexuality in SMC is unrealistic (for reviews, see Brown, 2009; Ward, 2003). Second, adolescents lack the emotional and social maturity, as well as the sexual experience, to put SMC, notably pornographic content, into perspective (e.g., Thornburgh and Lin, 2002). Third, along with peers, SMC has outperformed parents and schools as a source for sexual information (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2003). Other scholars, in contrast, have emphasized that the worries about the negative effects of

SMC on young people are, historically speaking, a recurring phenomenon (Duits and van Zoonen, 2011). Given also the far-reaching changes in sexual matters, these scholars have therefore argued that sex should not be seen as inherently dangerous and adolescents should not be regarded as necessarily vulnerable to SMC (Attwood and Smith, 2011). Rather, adolescents’ use of SMC should be studied within an emphasis on their critical skills and active appropriation of the content (Lerum and Dworkin, 2009). Despite ongoing scholarly discussions about media and adolescents’ sexual development, as

well as several policy reports on the issue (for a summary, see Duits and van Zoonen, 2011), relatively little research on the issue is available and, if so, it is scattered and not cumulative. This chapter, therefore, tries to synthesize what is currently known about the relationship between adolescents’ use of SMC and their sexual development, but also outlines the shortcomings of existing research. The term SMC refers to any (audio)visual and/or verbal representation and depiction of sex and sexual themes in the media, regardless of its degree of explicitness. Sexual

development can be defined as changes in adolescents’ sexual cognitions, affect, and behavior. This definition guides the organization of the chapter.