Media messages render abstinence programs ineffective

February 09, 2005|By Bronwyn Mayden

THE BUSH administration appears to be throwing good money after bad in funding for abstinence-only programs nationwide.

Studies of the effectiveness of abstinence-only education show that the courses do not appear to decrease teen pregnancy or the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. Yet the government has increased funding for these programs by more than 50 percent since 2001, spending about $170 million over that time.

Eleven of 13 federally funded abstinence-only programs conducted in communities and schools in 25 states provide adolescents with false and misleading information about reproductive health, a report says.

The report, released in December by Democratic Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, finds that more than two-thirds of these programs rely on curricula that distort information about the effectiveness of contraceptives, misrepresent the risks of abortion, blur religion and science, treat stereotypes about girls and boys as scientific fact and contain basic scientific errors. Eleven curricula are used in 25 states, including health departments, school districts and hospitals.

While members of Congress and the advocacy community debate the merits of abstinence-only curricula, this debate must be placed within the context of teenagers' lives. While the typical teen may have a class unit on sex education, that's a fraction of time compared with how much teens spend consuming various forms of media.

Recent studies reveal that teens spend an average of six to seven hours a day with some form of media, including TV, radio, the Internet, magazines and CDs. These provide cues of conduct that shape male-female interactions, often without showing negative consequences of sexual activity.

A RAND Corp. study released in September concluded that watching sex on TV predicts and may hasten adolescent sexual initiation. It said there were "substantial associations between the sexual content viewed by teens and advances in their sexual behavior during the subsequent year." In other words, young teens begin to take on the sexual behavior of older teens and, consequently, are inclined to be sexually active earlier.

The bottom line is that teens learn about sexuality from the mass media. Two-thirds of children ages 8 to 18 have a television in their bedrooms, and many have access to cable. Teens who watch three to five hours of television a day witness about 2,000 sex acts per year - including implied intercourse, embracing, kissing and fondling.

So while adults continue to debate the issues of abstinence-only education, our youths are tuning in to TV programs such as The OC and Desperate Housewives to learn about relationships. Whether it is sexual exploration for younger adolescents or forming romantic attachments for older adolescents, the media are setting the agenda. Because this is such a broad issue, there must be multiple strategies to deal with sex and the media. What to do:

Parents can watch TV with their children to help them to interpret what they are seeing as well as limit the amount of time spent watching. They also can use the V-chip to control TV viewing.

Policy-makers can support the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004, which greatly increases fines on broadcasters for allowing obscene, indecent and profane language on the air.

Policy-makers should urge the Federal Communications Commission to establish content standards to limit the amount of violence in programming.

Educators need to better understand the media and materials that youths are viewing.

Unfortunately, what's missing from the media's current sexual scripts is anything having to do with the possible negative consequences of sexual activity or ways to prevent negative outcomes, so it is unlikely that protective behavior could be imitated. Content analyses suggest that audiences are most likely to learn that sex is consequence-free, rarely planned and more a matter of lust than love.

Bronwyn Mayden is a community fellow at Morgan State University's Center for Health Disparities Solutions.

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