Peer pressure: Why some kids seek out sexual media content

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Parents know that the lamest excuse for doing something is that “everyone is doing it.” You’d think a teenager could come up with a better argument for doing something stupid. But, based on some recent media research, peer pressure has the power to lead kids to actively seek out sexual media content. Yes, parents, peer pressure is real. Even when it comes to sexual media content.

In a national study involving 810 teenagers ages 13-18, researchers asked teenagers how often they actively seek out sexual media content, such as that found in movies, TV shows, music, magazines, and yes, Internet pornography. Note the distinction here—the question asked about their “active” seeking out of this content. This is different than just stumbling upon something while channel surfing. This is actively, on purpose, sitting down and looking for media with sexual content. The study showed that the thing that seems to instigate this media behavior in the first place is peer pressure.

Peer pressure, in the media research world, is known as the “influence of social norms.” And there are two types of peer pressure that affect kids—thinking that your peers actually ­do something, and thinking that your peers think you should do something. Both, research shows, are surprisingly strong predictors of adolescents’ behavior. If a college student thinks drinking is what college students do, they are more likely to drink. If a male teenager thinks all boys look at pornography, he will be more likely to look at pornography. The study I mentioned above found that these types of peer pressure really do predict teenagers’ active seeking out of sexual media content. In other words, if I think my friends are watching certain “sexy” shows, I’m more likely to watch them too.

Turns out, peer pressure is real. But there is a way to combat peer pressure. It begins with “social norms marketing.” See, university administrators are concerned about how much their students drink alcohol. So, based on peer pressure/social norms research, campaigns have been implemented that simply do what I call “reverse peer pressure.” These campaigns tell students about the real levels of alcohol consumption among college students, and they have been remarkably successful at reducing the amount of alcohol consumed by college students.

Do you see the application of “social norms marketing” to our problem now? Yes, one way to reduce kids’ active exposure to sexual media content is to help them believe that (1) their friends aren’t doing it and that (2) it’s not cool to seek it out. And you wouldn’t be lying. While we know very little about how much kids actively seek out sexual content compared to how often they stumble upon it, we do know that not all of kids’ sexual media exposure is on purpose. And as a parent, you know, that cool is not the word we’d use to describe kids’ exposure to sex in the media.

So, parents, this means that we can combat peer pressure by helping our kids believe that “not everybody is doing it.” Not everybody looks at porn. Not everybody listens to sexually degrading music. So, parents, it’s time to start having these conversations with our teenagers. Are you with me?

After all, all the parents are doing it.

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