Parents, don't tune out sex story lines of teens' shows

February 11, 2003|By SUSAN REIMER

AS TELEVISION SHOWS go, 7th Heaven is so clean, it squeaks.

WB's ultra-ultra-family series chronicles the wholesome life lessons learned by the Rev. Eric Camden and his lively brood.

But the last time we saw Mary, the eldest daughter, she was living with an airline pilot old enough to be her father.

And Simon, who, it seems, was just a little boy a season or so ago, recently announced he and his high school girlfriend want to have sex.

Daughter Lucy has declared that she has no plans to have sex before marrying police officer Kevin. But Kevin's partner, Roxanne, is dating the new minister in town, and she says, flat out, she doesn't know if she can date someone without having sex with them.

What has the world come to?

7th Heaven is one of the most popular television shows among teens because it has the kind of same-age characters in whom they can get involved.

But, like the rest of the shows teens like - some of which are not nearly so wholesome - the characters are either talking about sex or actually having it.

The Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed 1,100 network and cable shows (excluding news, sports and children's programming, but including shows like Jeopardy!) during 2000-2001, and found that two-thirds of the episodes had some kind of sexual content.

However, among shows favored by teens, eight out of 10 episodes included some sexual content. Nearly half had some sexual activity, and one in five suggested sexual intercourse.

That's the bad news. The good news is, Kaiser reports, there are a lot more references to safe sex, more talking about waiting to have sex and more about the consequences of sex.

Also, the report says, the characters having sex are more likely to be older and in serious relationships.

The Kaiser foundation puts a happy face on these findings: "In the debate about sex on television, it may well be more important to consider how sex is shown rather than simply how much sex is shown."

Spoken like a true network pitchman.

As a demographic group, "teen-ager" technically includes 13- to 19-year-olds, and that is a huge age range. Can we really expect our 13-year-olds to understand a public health message imbedded in a prime-time script? I have my doubts.

But I am certain that the teen-age wannabes - the 9- to 12-year-olds - who watch these shows, too, are missing out on the subtleties of good-girl Joey's pregnancy scare on Dawson's Creek.

"Kids are not just passively watching these shows," says Marisa Nightingale of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

"They are watching these characters over time, e-mailing each other about them, talking about them the next day at school.

"These characters are pseudo-peers. They know these characters inside and out and they pay attention to what they do.

"You can't just show a condom in one scene and, that's it, you've done your job."

Nightingale's job is to help the entertainment industry get teen pregnancy prevention messages into the shows that recognize their role in influencing the behavior of teens.

She works with WB on shows like Dawson's Creek, with Fox on Boston Public, with talk show host Ricki Lake, with Teen People magazine and with the networks on shows such as American Dreams and George Lopez.

"We don't write scripts, but we help with background information, and we encourage them to deal with our issue."

Television has figured out how to get the attention of our teen-agers, and it has created story lines and characters in which our kids are invested.

But their response to what they see isn't as simple as, "I will have sex because Joey finally gave in and had sex."

The relationship between our kids and these characters is more complex. They care about what Joey does and they think about why she does it and they talk to all their friends about it.

"Having Joey go through it is the next best thing to having your best friend go through it," says Nightingale. That's why the consequences the script provides are as important as what the character does.

A producer asked her once if it was more helpful to her cause to show kids doing the right thing, or the wrong thing.

"`Show both,' I said. `But show it over time. Show the character doing the right thing and being rewarded and show the character doing the wrong thing and experience the consequences.'"

Where in the name of 7th Heaven is "family entertainment" to be found if little Simon is thinking about having sex Mondays at 8 p.m.?

As parents, we can put the television out by the curb, or we can find out why our kids like these characters and what they think about the choices these characters make.

We don't have to sit next to our teens on the couch and grill them during commercial breaks - they'd flee the room - but we can wander in and out or tune in from the kitchen.

The fact is, they are all family shows in a sense: If our kids are watching it, we need to be, too.

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