So Maybe Sexy Media Doesn't Lead to Teen Sex?

A new study (summarized here) casts doubt on the popular notion that exposure to sex in the media is linked to earlier sexual activity. “There is a common problem in social science research called the third variable problem,” said Laurence Steinberg, one of the study’s authors. “When looking at the relation between a given behavior and given experience, it could look like there is a correlation, when in fact the relationship is dependent on something else entirely.” In order to address the “third variable problem,” Steinberg re-analyzed existing data, controlling for “adolescents’ propensity to be exposed to sexualized media.” In Steinberg’s more conservative analysis, the relationship between media exposure and early sexual activity disappeared. “There are many reasons to find the portrayal of sex in mass media objectionable,” says Steinberg. “But let’s not confuse matters of taste with matters of science.” (HT: Carl Beyer) [%comments]


Ian Kemmish

I can see how you might make an apparent causation disappear, but how do you make a correlation disappear? Two sets of numbers are either correlated or they are not. And if they author of the paper truly does not know the difference between causation and correlation, how much is the rest of his work worth?

For myself, I find it easier and much cheaper just to read literature like "Cider With Rosie". They've always been at it.

Laurence Steinberg

One makes a correlation "disappear" by controlling for other variables that made it seem that the first two are independently correlated with each other.

Daniel McLeod

The answer is in your question, he is not making a correlation disappear, he is merely disproving the alleged correlation from the first study.

Dsmeltz

The correlation does not "disappear" the causation assumption however is challenged. The report seems to be saying the cause of both higher exposure to sex in the media and earlier sexual experiences are both caused by early interest in sex. In other words, a child who gets interested in sex earlier than his/her peers is more likely to find sex in media more interesting than his/her peers, and therefore watch it, as well as seek to engage in sex sooner.

All of this should extract the following response:

"Duh."

Eric M. Jones

Yimminy! Let's define terms--

Correlation is a (0-1) measure of the simultaneity of pairs of variables with no preconceptions as to whether or not they have any causal relationship.

Example: (Google) Global warming vs. number of pirates.

Now, two variables might be related, but logically, correlation does not imply causation. But correlations can be suggestive and are a good place to begin investigation. Still the issue is CAUSATION. Example:

Correlation(+): Cancer with milk drinking.
Causation--Milk drinking helps people live to old ages.
Cancer is often a disease of old people.

Cheeeeeeeze.............

As for teenage sex, I'm for it. I don't doubt for a minute that exposure to sex in the media encourages it. Pete Hamill (I think) once said that the public concern about sex vs. violence was that upon seeing a violent film, one was not inclined to go home and be violent.

frankenduf

yeah right- just like celebrity smoking doesn't spike tobacco sales to minors- in fact, just change all "sex" here to "tobacco" and ull probably come up with a good amicus brief the industry could use in marketing exposure to children

James

I'm not yet so old that I can't remember that (for teen boys, at least) the causative effect here is being a teen boy. Nor am I so narrow-minded, nor so selfish, as to think that more teen sex isn't a good thing, even if I am past the point where I'd enjoy the benefits personally.

AaronS

I'm not convinced. The claim that 16-year-olds interested in sex will be more likely to view sexual material...well, do you know a 16-year-old that isn't interested in sex?

The question then becomes, it seems, a matter of whether such viewing helps push teens from WANTING to...to DOING.

I'm sure there is some reflexive thing going on here: That is, TV shows are sexual because we have become a more sexualized society...and we have become a more sexualized society due to the environments our minds find themselves exposed to.

I think most of us would agree that porn has an impact on us (otherwise there would not be such a demand). And if that sort of sexual material can stimulate some sort of action (either alone or with others), then why wouldn't we think that lesser sexual material might have at least some effect also?

This reminds me of nothing very different from advertisers claiming that their ads haven't had a negative impact in this or that area...yet they continue to spend BILLIONS to buy and create advertising? Who would spend that kind of money on something useless?

Lastly, I imagine a lot of sexual TV is just following that old marketing slogan of "sex sells." They know if they spice it up enough, it will draw viewers. Those viewers, having a desire for such material, not only create a demand for it, but are no doubt affected by it.

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BillyM

Instances of sexual activity may seem on the rise in general, but a large part of that is the liberation or volume increase of sexually related activity in general and more accurately, in the media. In saying that, clearly there are correlations between exposure and activity but the causative factors of sexual activity is numerous and intricate given the nature of human relationships.

Media portrays sexual activity in such vast volumes but the reality is that when the actual nature of a sexual encounter is shown, it is almost exclusively sexual intercourse which is shown or suggested. The transparency of oral sex in particular may enable the extreme reduction in teenage pregnancy, intimacy in relationships and true liberation and enjoyment particularly for females. This may seem like a crude or drastic idea, but the truth is: sex is mainstream but how it is done is not. Intercourse is far from the only option.

The correlation and causation argument is clearly debatable. Teenage hormones is not. There shouldn't be media volume without transparency.

-BillyM

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Panem et Circanses

Delighted to see "third variable problem" appear here! Generally news stories go to far in inferring causality,. which is the case in, I think, only a riny percentage of correlations - these third variable problems are there in a great majority of cases.

Yet, you still are left with the question - if only teenagers with propensity toward seeing prurient material are affected, is that cause enough for concern? Sorf ot like alcohol and gambling where while most do not abuse them, some do, but in this case perhaps it's a majority instead of a minority..

SKFetter

@frankenduf

Well, unless I misinterpreted your post, you are indirectly proposing something interesting here. You might be viewing the conclusion brought forth by this study with disapproval because you fear it gives ground to marketing tobacco to children.

I'd argue that this sort of scientific approach works the other way around.

Suppose there is someone out there who argues that celebrity advertisement of tobacco for children isn't harmful due to this third variable problem, i.e., children who consume tobacco would have done so either way because they just like tobacco from the beginning or have a natural propensity to enjoy smoking.
This scientific approach would not, however, be satisfied with such an argument: it would also demand testing to be done to qualify it.

So suppose you do calculate the correlation between tobacco consumption and celebrity advertising of tobacco while controlling for an underlying natural propensity for interest in tobacco.
Some economist out there may have done this already, but I'd bet that this controlled correlation between tobacco consumption and celebrity advertising WILL NOT disappear! Meaning that celebrity advertising does harm children. If the correlation DOES disappear however, we'll have to face the FACTS and accept that such form of advertising doesn't have the adverse effects we thought it had, and instead direct our efforts to variables that do affect premature tobacco consumption, such as education (those things that affect the propensity in the first place!).

The article does not advocate that you can make correlations disappear if you control for underlying propensities. It argues that you need to control for it to test if the correlation survives or not before you make any further conclusions.

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Edward

I'm a media effects researcher and out of curiosity I looked over the Steinberg and Monahan article and, at least at first glance, it's not very convincing to me.

At least in the white sample, they controlled for 12 covariates, which seems unreasonably conservative to me especially given the sample size (dropping to 176-186 in critical analyses). Even with those covariates, they still found sexy media to marginally predict age of sexual debut (regression coefficient of 0.357). When they did their critical analysis of also matching for propensity to be exposed to sexy media (without replacement) the coefficient barely changes (dropping from 0.357 to 0.308).

However because the statistical power was so low with all those covariates even an effect size estimate that many researchers would be describe as large is non-significant by a fairly small drop in the coefficient.

In the model that uses all the covariates and matching with replacement, the coefficient drops to the point of being trivially small (0.013) however the standard error also more than doubles in that model (going from 0.194 to 0.480), which can happen with analyses that match with replacement.

The more important point to be made is that the initial analysis with 12 covariates was so conservative and yielded an effect size estimate that, despite being statistically large, was so close to non-significance that just about anything could push it over the edge. A drop from 0.357 to 0.308 is not meaningful (p values notwithstanding), which seriously undermines the explanation that sexy media exposure does not affect age of sexual debut when propensity to be exposed to sexual media is accounted for. It seems to me more like they are relying on a misleading statistical trick.

As with any analysis deemed too conservative, the results remain open to interpretation but I certainly wouldn't reject the original authors' (Brown et al., 2006) interpretation on the basis of these results.

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