Smoking, sex in movies influences teens’ choices

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A new study from the Norris Cotton Cancer Center in New Hampshire suggests that an R rating — rather than the current PG-13 — for any film showing smoking could substantially reduce smoking onset in U.S. adolescents. (AP Photo)

by Sari Harrar

When I was little, the Disney movie Peter Pan inspired me to jump off furniture — trying to fly like Peter, Tinkerbelle and Wendy. Today, researchers say kids and teens who watch movies (and TV shows) where characters smoke and/or have sex open an earlier door for making those choices in real life. And ratings that keep more teens out of theaters showing films with this stuff influences some to say No longer.

The news:

An “R” rating for movies with smoking could cut teen smoking 18 percent: A new study from the Norris Cotton Cancer Center in New Hampshire suggests that an R rating — rather than the current PG-13 — for any film showing smoking could substantially reduce smoking onset in U.S. adolescents. The study checked in with 6,522 U.S. adolescents. Movie smoking exposure was estimated from 532 recent hit movies, categorized into three of the ratings brackets used by the Motion Picture Association of America to rate films by content — G/PG, PG-13, and R. They compared smoking rates and movie attendance. Teens went to more PG-13 movies and so were three times more likely to see smoking on the big screen at those movies. The more smoking they saw, the more they were likely to smoke. The less they saw, the less likely. The conclusion: Adolescent smoking would be reduced by 18 percent if smoking in PG-13 movies was largely eliminated.

Researcher quote: "We're just asking the movie industry to take smoking as seriously as they take profanity when applying the R rating," James Sargent, M.D., co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at Norris Cotton Cancer Center. "The benefit to society in terms of reduced healthcare costs and higher quality of life is almost incalculable."

Watching sex on screen boosts odds for earlier sexual experiments: University of Missouri  researchers checked the movie habits of 1,228  teens and preteens, ages 12 to 14, then returned six years later to find out how sexually active they were — and if they practiced safe sex. They found that teens exposed to more sexual content in movies start having sex at younger ages, had more sexual partners, and are less likely to use condoms with casual sexual partners. According to researcher Ross O’Hara, watching more movies with sexual content amped up teens’ drive for “sensation-seeking.”  It’s a natural desire for new and intense stimulation of all types that’s particularly strong between ages 10 and 15. Add hormone surges and the fact that 57 percent of young teens get most of their sexual info from the media and the influence of movies makes a lot of sense.

Researcher quote: “Parents need to restrict their children from seeing sexual content in movies at young ages," O’Hara said.  That can be challenging. In an earlier study, O’Hara found that 84 percent of top-grossing movies had sexual content, including 68 percent of the G rated films, 82 percent of PG movies and 85 percent of PG-13 movies. Most of the recent films do not portray safe sex, with little mention of using contraception.

What can parents do? You can’t avoid all sexual content — so get ready to talk with your kids about what you see. Does the behavior on-screen match your values and what you want for your kids? What do they think?

You can also avoid surprises by getting a read on a movie’s quotient of “risky and bad behavior” — sex, violence, profanity, smoking, drinking, drug use — by checking reviews on parent movie sites like Parent PreviewsKids in Mind, and Screen It.

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