A great deal of research on narrative fiction has examined the effects mass media can have on media consumers. For as long as there have been stories, there has been a concern that these stories might corrupt the youth. Empirical research on this topic is often difficult to conduct, however. One difficulty is separating the possibility that media exposure has corrupted the youth from the possibility that corrupted youth are attracted to certain types of media. A recent study by Ross O’Hara (Dartmouth College) and colleagues attempted to circumvent this problem by employing a longitudinal analysis to examine how sexual content in movies might affect early sexual behavior. A large number of adolescents (6,522 to be precise) between the ages of 10 and 14 were initially polled, with a subset of these individuals responding to a subsequent survey five or so years later (1,228 persons). Exposure to sexual content in media was measured by asking respondents which movies from a list of 50 that they had seen. Importantly, the researchers had carefully coded these movies and counted the number of seconds of sexual content included in each. In an analysis that focused specifically on early exposure to sexual content in movies (controlling for later exposure), they found that greater exposure predicted earlier ages of sexual debut, and that this effect was stronger for males than females. Moreover, these earlier ages of sexual debut were associated with more risky sexual behavior (e.g., casual sex without condom use). Exposure to sexual content in movies also predicted risky sexual behavior directly. The strengths of this study include its longitudinal design, large sample size, and the careful coding of content for the movies. Its results remind us that experiences with narrative affect people differently at different ages, and that the effects observed may differ for men and women. It also reminds us that for children and youth, the greatest insight from stories may develop during discussions regarding these stories and their meaning with adults.
O'Hara, R. E., Gibbons, F. X., Gerrard, M., Li, Z., & Sargent, J. D. (2012). Greater exposure to sexual content in popular movies predicts earlier sexual debut and increased sexual risk taking. Psychological Science, 23, 984-993.