Media influence youths’ attitudes toward sexual health

Recent research suggests that teens in the U.S. spend an average of almost 9 hours a day watching videos, listening to music, and otherwise consuming media (Common Sense Media, 2015). Unfortunately, much of this content contains unhealthy and inaccurate information about sexual health and relationships–and this messaging can affect how adolescents view themselves and others.

Over ninety percent of adolescents reported that some of the entertainment media they consume depicts sexual situations (Ybarra et al., 2014), and the more youth view entertainment media as realistic, the more they are likely to intend to have sex (Scull et al., 2017). Furthermore, youth who watched TV shows with sexually objectifying scripts were more likely to objectify others and themselves (Rousseau, Eggermont 2018).

What is media literacy?

Media literacy is the ability to analyze, evaluate, and ask questions about the content we read, watch, and experience. In a world dominated by interactions with media, understanding how media communicate messages and shapes behavior is vital for avoiding harmful influences and promoting health.

Media literacy education gives youth the tools to understand and refute unhealthy media messages while helping them be more conscious consumers in their everyday life. Students who complete media literacy education programs typically demonstrate heightened critical thinking skills about media messages, more accurate perceptions of their peers’ risk behaviors, and greater self-efficacy for avoiding risk behaviors (Scull et al., 2018, Kupersmidt et al., 2012; Kupersmidt et al., 2010).

A solution for sexual health education

Effective sexual health education calls for innovative techniques. By using a media literacy education approach, students who have taken the Media Aware programs showed more positive health outcomes.

Preliminary findings in a study of high school students who completed Media Aware indicate that students:

  • Intend to make healthier decisions about sexual activity in the future
  • Feel empowered to prevent sexual assault and seek help as a bystander
  • Consume media more actively, and with a more critical eye
  • Enjoy the program, and would recommend it to others

In a randomized controlled trial, middle school students who completed Media Aware (compared to students who did not) reported:

  • More intent to communicate about sexual health with medical professionals
  • More intent to use contraception, if they were to engage in sexual activity
  • Decreased acceptance of dating violence and strict gender roles

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Scull, T.M., Kupersmidt, J.B., Malik, C.V., & Keefe, E.M. (2018). Examining the

efficacy of an mHealth media literacy education program for sexual health promotion in older adolescents attending community college. Journal of American College Health. 66(3): 165-177.

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