The amount of sexual content during network television's nightly "family hour" has risen dramatically in recent years and is seldom accompanied by any message of sexual risks or responsibilities.
Those are among the findings of a study on sex and the family hour, which will be released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Children Now, an advocacy organization for children. The study explores programming during the 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. time period when 6 million children aged 2 to 11 watch television -- more children than view Saturday morning or weekday afternoon programs.
Three out of four family-hour shows on ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox now contain some sexual content and the number of sexual interactions (talk about sex as well as physical activity) during those shows is up 218 percent since 1986 and 370 percent from 1976, the study reports.
While those numbers may not surprise anyone who has viewed a recent episode of NBC's "Friends" or Fox's "Melrose Place," the study is the first to document changes in the amount of sexual content over the last 20 years and then conduct follow-up interviews with children to discover what sense they are making of the sex they see on TV.
"There are hundreds of thousands of unplanned pregnancies and millions of cases of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, occurring among teen-agers every year," said Victoria Rideout, director of the Children & the Media program at Children Now. "With statistics like these, it's clear that all of us -- including the entertainment industry -- need to pay attention to the kinds of messages we're sending kids about sex."
The study -- which was directed by Dale Kunkel, of the University of California, Santa Barbara -- consisted of three parts: a content analysis of sexual content during the family hour on four networks, focus group interviews with children and a national telephone survey of parents to see how they feel about the issue. In addition to analysis of network programming during the winter of 1996, researchers also measured sexual content in family-hour programs airing in 1976 and '86.
One of the key findings on content was that the average number of sexual interactions per hour of programming nearly doubled decade to decade, with four times as many interactions now as in 1976. Sexual interactions were defined as both talk about sex and sexual behavior ranging from kissing to intercourse among characters in such shows as "Ellen," "Beverly Hills, 90210," "Melrose Place," "Friends," "Mad About You," "The Nanny," "Wings" and "Martin."
From 2.3 sexual interactions per hour in 1976 and 3.9 in 1986, the number jumped to 8.5 last winter. To make their findings as current as possible, the researchers ran a "snapshot" study this fall and found that the number continues to climb and is now at 9.4 sexual interactions per hour.
"The goal of our study was not simply to count the number of sexual interactions, but also to examine the context of sexual depictions and the nature of the messages communicated about sex," Kunkel says in the report.
In that regard, the study's most significant finding is that only 9 percent of the scenes that included sexual content last winter had any mention of sexual risks or responsibilities such as condoms, abstinence, abortion or AIDS. And the news got worse in the snapshot study this fall, with that number dropping to 3 percent.
While the study does not offer hard evidence that viewing sexual content leads to sexual behavior among children and teens, its focus group findings suggest that children as young as 8 years old understand the sexual messages and appear to be "learning" from them. This is a direct contradiction of the conventional wisdom that sexual jokes, innuendoes and behavior "go right over the heads" of kids.
For example, in a group of 8- to 10-year-olds some of the children understood a joking reference in an episode of "Jeff Foxworthy" to be about sex. When asked what it meant, one boy said, "The man is going to squirt whipped cream all over the woman and lick it off."
All of the children in a group of 11- to 13-year-olds understood the sexual nature of the joke, according to the report.
Another finding is that shows with mixed messages about sex often left the children confused in dangerous ways.
For example, after seeing a clip from "Melrose Place" in which a man seduces his female business partner after she initially says she is not interested in sex, one boy in the 11- to 13-year-old group said the message was, "Girls say 'no,' but, you know, they really mean 'yes.' " Several boys agreed.
In the survey of 853 parents by Princeton Survey Research Associates, 43 percent of the parents of children aged 8 to 12 said they worry "a great deal" about the amount of sexual content their children are exposed to via television. That compares to 39 percent who worry a great deal about the violent content their kids see.
Although many of the parents were unfamiliar with the term "family hour," 75 percent thought the network should only broadcast material suitable for all ages during the first hour of prime time.
The networks had adopted such a policy under the heading of a family viewing hour in 1975. In response to pressure from various groups and the Federal Communications Commission, they agreed that early evening would be off-limits to programs that were excessively violent or contained adult sexual content.
But, once the pressure waned and deregulation gained in the 1980s, the old networks and newcomer Fox started slipping in shows like "Magnum, P.I." and "Married ... With Children." In the last two years, most vestiges of restraint have been dropped -- the one exception being CBS, which has made some effort to return to family shows at 8 p.m. with "Cosby" and "Promised Land."
Pub Date: 12/11/96