Teen pregnancies tied to tastes for sexy TV shows?

Here is a study that ties teen pregnancies to risque TV shows. The study was released in the November 2008 issue of Pediatrics – official journal of American Academy of Pediatrics. 

The conclusions of the study – “This is the first study to demonstrate a prospective link between exposure to sexual content on television and the experience of a pregnancy before the age of 20. Limiting adolescent exposure to the sexual content on television and balancing portrayals of sex in the media with information about possible negative consequences might reduce the risk of teen pregnancy. Parents may be able to mitigate the influence of this sexual content by viewing with their children and discussing these depictions of sex.”

At first blush – it appears logical, almost obvious that the conclusion is valid. Impressionable young teenage minds are easily influenced by the popular TV shows. I was somewhat surprised that the popular show Friends was part of the risque TV shows! Anyway, the researchers found that pregnancies were twice as common among those who said they watched such shows regularly, compared with teens who said they hardly ever saw them. The researchers said TV-watching was strongly connected with teen pregnancy even when other factors were considered, including grades, family structure and parents’ education level.

Attributing teen pregnancies (effect) to risque TV shows (cause) alone is naive at best. There are so many other socio-economic factors affecting this phenomenon – communication between parent-teenager, lifestyle, household income, cultural effects, and many more. I don’t claim in any way to know the cause of teen pregnancy but to say it is caused by sex in TV shows seems flawed.

Lets give credit where credit is due – the researchers did identify an important link between two phenomena. But I believe its interpretation is a classic example of a logical fallacy – mistaking a strong correlation between two events as implying a cause and effect relationship. If you are interested wikipedia has an excellent article on this fallacy. It is like saying teenagers who play violent video games are likely to associate themselves withviolent activities, so violent video games cause violence in teenagers. It could very well be that teenagers who are predisposed to violence because of other more compelling socio-economic factors also like violent video games. In the same vein, it could be that teenagers who are likely to engage in unprotected sex, like to watch That ’70s Show or one of the twenty listed by the authors of this study. It is convenient but definitely dubious to conclude that it is the other way round!


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