Was TV Healthier in “The Good Old Days”?

An email is floating around the internet with a list of “old time” TV shows and links to popular clips.  A friend who forwarded the email to me wrote that he enjoyed reminiscing about their wholesome and positive values. He asked for my perspective on today’s TV shows and their possible impact on teen viewers’ sexual behavior. My response to him may be of interest to our readers with children (or perhaps, readers who produce TV!).

While there were many positive messages in these old shows, there were many hurtful messages like racism, heterosexism, sexism, ableism, cultural elitism…the list goes on. Newer shows tend to be more diverse in terms of race, and there are increasing numbers of shows that portray gay and genderqueer folks in a neutral, if not positive light. Sadly, the other negative messages and sexual messages are awful. Nobody on TV discusses contraceptives or STI tests prior to sexual engagement. No one emphasizes that females have a right to be sexually assertive and males have a right to choose not to be sexually active. Few older adults are portrayed as being sexual without being “dirty old men/women.” The list goes on.

To your point specifically, thousands of studies (here’s one) have been done on the impact of sexualized TV messages on teen behavior. Yes, teens who see TV teens being sexually active (or talking about it) are more likely to have their first sexual experience at an earlier age.

Sexologists generally agree that it’s healthier to delay first sex as long as possible in order to respect developmental stages and to lower the lifetime total number of partners and, therefore, less exposure to STIs*. However, age of initiation is less of an issue for me than are the circumstances of the sex that’s taking place. Is it consensual and legal (in terms of age)? Is it enjoyable for both partners? Are the partners protecting themselves physically and emotionally? Are they absorbing messages from TV that sex should be values-free, affection-free (forget love and commitment!), and protection-free, while also absorbing all the ‘isms noted in my first sentence? Another issue is that teen sex on TV is almost always an all-or-nothing proposition, so young people aren’t supported in the idea that they can enjoy no- to low-risk sexual expression (making out, petting, massage, etc.).

*STI = sexually transmitted infection