2001 - 2004

Project Directors: Deborah L. Tolman, Ed.D., Meg Striepe, Ph.D., Michelle Porche, Ed.D.

Funded by: NICHD

Conclusions from this five-year project focused on relationships between personal ethnic identification and television consumption, as well as levels of sexual content in varying shows.

Project Description:
The Wellesley Centers for Women was one of four projects in the nation awarded a grant from NICHD to investigate media and adolescent sexuality. A five-year grant supported a longitudinal study, “Television Consumption and Adolescent Sexual Activity”, Deborah L. Tolman, Ed.D. was the principal investigator. This longitudinal study followed adolescents from middle school into high school and addresses the following research questions:

Is there a relationship between adolescent sexual outcomes and:

  • the amount or proportion of sexual content in television viewed by adolescent girls and boys?
  • contextual elements of that sexual content?
  • adolescents’ viewing involvement?

In addition the potential effect of gender ideologies on theses aspects of television consumption and adolescent sexual outcome will be explored.

The study also includes conducting qualitative focus groups with small groups of students. The students watch clips from their favorite television shows and are then asked to describe their perceptions and how what they saw relates to their lives, including how gender ideologies may be involved in the meaning they are making of the sexual content.

Preliminary Findings:
During the 2001-2002 school year, students in 8th (n = 275) and 10th grades (n= 409) from suburban centralized school districts in the Northeast responded to a two-part survey designed to gather information about

  1. television consumption (programming watched, how often, in what contexts) and viewing involvement (perceived realism and identification with characters and
  2. sexual attitudes and behaviors, gender ideologies, and demographic characteristics.

Overall, the majority of these students identified themselves as White, while smaller proportions described themselves as Latina (~20%), African American (3%), Asian (2%), other (2%), or bi- or multi-racial (9%).

The following preliminary findings are based on these students’ responses:

What shows are adolescents watching?

8th grade: 10th grade:
74% watch The Simpsons (pending)
66% watch Friends  
50% watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer  


What is the sexual content of favorite shows and the potential impact on adolescents?
In the three episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the hour-long drama) analyzed in this study, sexual intercourse was depicted once and implied twice, and passionate kissing occurred in 7 times. None of the episodes of Friends or the Simpsons (the half-hour situation comedies) in this analysis involved sexual intercourse (implied or depicted), but there were multiple incidents of kissing (5 in Friends, 4 in The Simpsons) and physical flirting (3 counts in Friends). Thus, while more intimate sexual behaviors were observed in the drama (Buffy), the two sitcoms contained a great deal of flirting and kissing, particularly when taking the time differential (three full hours of programming vs. an hour and a half) into account. A similar pattern was observed in sexual talk, slightly more sexual talk was observed, but the difference was not as substantial, particularly when taking the time difference into account (20 total incidents of sexual talk in Buffy; 14 in Friends; 6 in The Simpsons).

Taking only the amount of sexual behaviors on these shows and the frequency of viewing these three shows into account, we were able to predict adolescents’ desires to try new sexual behaviors. Though the identified effect is small, increased frequency of watching is connected with increased desire to experience new sexual behaviors. 

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