Did your parents actually sit you down and have “the talk?” Did your school teach sex ed?

Or was it your best friend? Your older brother? Some paperback that got passed around in seventh grade?

These are the kinds of questions that Jane Brown isn’t afraid to ask kids. And she wants parents to get more comfortable asking them too.

Schools certainly aren’t talking about it, especially in North Carolina, where only a handful of counties offer anything but abstinence-only sex education.

Brown, professor of journalism and mass communication, led a team of researchers who visited the homes of 1,017 teenagers in three North Carolina counties to ask them about their sexual attitudes and behaviors. The team asked parents for permission first, and let them read the sexual health questionnaire that their child would complete confidentially, using a laptop computer.

“We found that parents were actually glad for us to visit,” Brown says. “Very few refused.

“And some parents even said, ‘Thank goodness somebody’s talking with our teen about sex!’” Then Brown’s big laugh erupts. It does that often. Wearing jeans on a Wednesday in May, when Carolina is in a post-graduation lull, Brown, who has a fifteen-year-old daughter of her own, seems like someone a kid wouldn’t mind talking to about this stuff.

Brown worries that if both parents and schools stay silent, kids will turn to whatever source of information they can find. With TVs in kids’ bedrooms and iPods in their pockets, the media become an always-on friend. Or, as Brown calls it, a kind of “sexual super peer.”

What’s the problem with that? Results of Brown and colleagues’ five-year study suggest that the media don’t make very good sex educators.

The researchers surveyed kids twelve to fourteen years old about what they watch, listen to, and read. The team conducted the sexual-health and attitudes survey with a subset of those kids, and then interviewed them again two years later.

The adolescents who chose media with a lot of sexual content when they were ages twelve to fourteen were two times more likely than the other kids to have had sex by age sixteen.

While the researchers can’t go so far as to say that the sexy media caused the adolescents to have sex earlier, their study is one of the first to establish a relationship between sexual content in the media and adolescents’ behavior. “It’s a very strong association,” Brown says.

What in the world were those kids watching?

In the early stages of the study, the researchers really made an effort to answer that question.

First they did focus groups in North Carolina schools, asking adolescents which TV shows, movies, and magazines they watched or read most often. That turned up a list of titles to use in the media survey. About half of those titles never appeared on commercial ratings systems such as Billboard or Nielsen. Some TV shows, for example, weren’t popular enough overall to show up on Nielsen, but 80 percent of the African American girls in the study watched them regularly.

Then the researchers painstakingly analyzed the sexual content of all these media. We’re talking a summer and fall of twelve graduate and undergraduate students poring over and assigning a value to every scene in seventy-one TV shows. Every non-breaking camera shot in ninety-four movies. Every photo, paragraph, and headline in thirty-two magazines. Every line of every song in sixty-seven music albums. That detailed analysis enabled the researchers to assign each child an individual “sexual media diet score.”

Kelly Ladin L’Engle oversaw the content analysis while earning her doctoral degree from Carolina’s School of Public Health. Overall, says L’Engle, now project director of the study, the favorite media of these twelve- to fourteen-year-olds contained 12 percent sexual content.

“So that doesn’t sound so bad,” L’Engle says. “But once you look at what that content actually is, you see that there are no healthy messages for kids about sexuality.”

The sexual content included innuendo, flirting, double entendre. But very little of what Brown and L’Engle call “the three Cs”—contraception, commitment, and consequences.

“Less than one half of one percent of all this content we looked at had what we might construe as sexually healthy information in it,” Brown says. “And we defined that very broadly to even include masturbation as a potentially healthy sexual behavior.

“So here we are with twelve- to fourteen-year-olds who are totally into how their bodies are changing and puberty, and there’s no information about puberty, there’s no information about contraception or STDs or protecting yourself against those,” Brown says. “There’s rarely any abstinence portrayed, or any waiting, and there’s very little love or real kind of substantial relationships shown.”

L’Engle adds, “There is a lot of talking about dating and sexual relationships in the media that could be teachable moments. There’s an important role for the media to play that they’re not stepping into.”

The study did find some good news—parents can make a difference. Kids who said that they knew their parents disapproved of teen sex were less likely to have had sex by age sixteen.

Brown’s advice: talk to your kids early, even before adolescence. And be an “askable parent.” Let your kids know you are open to talking with them about anything.

Now the team is exploring how to tailor different messages for different kids. “You would communicate to a teen who still finds sex ‘gross and disgusting’ very differently than to a teen who is a ‘player,’ who is very into it, and having multiple sex partners,” Brown says. (See virgin valedictorian or sexual sophisticate?)

Click to read photo caption.

“A fundamental idea of the project is that adolescents are active in choosing what they’re seeing and using in the media,” Brown says. So teens who are choosing shows, songs, or movies with a lot of sexual content may be doing so for a reason. “Parents should be aware of what their children are looking for,” she says.

“We know very little about how you actually get parents to become more involved and do a better job of monitoring their children and teens’ media use,” L’Engle says. “So that’s a next step for this type of work.”

In Brown’s study, 68 percent of the kids had TVs in their bedrooms. “When I talk to parent groups, I say, ‘Just don’t ever put the TV in the kid’s room,’” Brown says. “‘Because then, you won’t have to try to get it out.’

“The media can also be helpful and stimulate a discussion that kids and their parents might not otherwise have,” she says. “But you have to be watching or listening with your teenager to be able to have those conversations.”

Brown’s study was published in April 2006 in the journal Pediatrics. Other authors were professor of sociology Guang Guo and sociology doctoral student Kristin Kenneavy, both of Carolina; Carol Pardun, Director of Middle Tennessee State University’s School of Journalism; and Christine Jackson of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.Funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.