Over the last three decades research has found that media entertainment affects the development of sexual attitudes among adolescents. While young people, to a certain extent, acquire knowledge of sexuality from their parents, and even more so, from their same-sex peers (e.g., Handelsman et al. 1987), the media has been identified as an important source of knowledge for the physical, social, and emotional aspects of dating, romance, and sex (e.g., Brown et al. 2005; Christenson et al. 2004). In general, young people turn more readily to media that presents ‘forbidden fruits’ in a far more overt, detailed, and appealing way than most parents or educators offer (Sutton et al. 2002). Youth oriented entertainment media including movies, TV, magazines, pop music, and music videos are targeted at a teenage audience and provide a vast array of messages on falling in love, relationships, and sexual desires; therefore, may shape sexual attitudes, values, and practices. The internet, with its easy access and highly explicit sexual content, has become another important source of information (Lo and Wei 2005; Peter and Valkenburg 2006a; Strasburger and Donnerstein 1999; Wolak et al. 2007).
Media may present a rather unrealistic and skewed account of human romance and sexuality leading some commentators to raise concerns that youth media, with their formulaic portrayal of gender roles and sexuality, is developing and sustaining stereotypical gender-role schemas; for example, ideas that, for women, looks and sexiness are all important and, for men, sexual obsession is normal, and sexual prowess an asset (e.g., Ward 2002). Negative correlates and consequences of (sexualized) gender stereotyping have been shown to range from confining females and males into traditional work roles (e.g., Gadassi and Gati 2009); self-objectification among girls and women, resulting in lower self-esteem and higher depression (e.g., Fredrickson and Roberts 1997; Aubrey 2006); and acceptance of violence against women and perpetuation of the rape myth (e.g., Murnen et al. 2002; Mundorf et al. 2006). It is therefore timely to explore the link between media exposure and preferences and sexual attitudes among teenagers developing their attitudes and worldviews.
Media have emerged as an important socialization determinant, yet there still exists serious gaps in our knowledge of the role of media in the development of adolescent sexual attitudes and behaviors. Recently, two major reviews on the potential effects of (sexualized) media content have concluded that there is little empirical evidence on the nature and extent of media influences. Additionally, the majority of available research has addressed TV; however, other media are virtually ‘terra incognita’ (Escobar-Chaves et al. 2005; Ward 2003). Furthermore, investigations on the unique or combined effects of exposure to different types of media are rare and little is known of the effects of the recent rise of the internet and adolescents’ consumption of explicit sexual content found using this media source. A majority of studies have focused on exposure to media, ignoring the fact that adolescents are known for their active search of media content. More attention should be given to adolescent media preferences in order to address their active roles in the selection of the media they choose to be exposed to. While it is clear, based on previous research, that adolescent girls and boys differ in their media use (e.g., Brown and Pardun 2004), in most of the reviewed studies, gender issues were understudied and accounts of gender differences in media’s effects are rare. A group of researchers associated with Brown et al. (2006), L’Engle et al. (2006), and Pardun et al. (2005) have attempted to examine media comprehensively by including a wider array of media choices in their studies. Additionally, Peter and Valkenburg (2006b, 2007, 2008a, b, 2009) have incorporated exposure to explicit internet material in their research paradigms. However, to these writers’ knowledge, no study has yet addressed TV, pop music, music videos, and different types of internet use in relation to sexual attitudes.
The present study extends the literature on sexual attitudes with an investigation that models both Dutch adolescents’ media exposure to and preferences for three important types of youth media. These include a wide range of TV formats, various types of pop music, music television, internet surfing and internet chatting, examined in relation to four types of sexual attitudes and stereotypes (SAS). Ward’s (2002) conceptualization of sexual attitudes and stereotypes was adopted, focusing on (1) permissive sexual attitudes, (2) stereotypes of men as being primarily sex-driven, and (3) stereotypes of women as (sexual) objects. A newly developed measurement on (4) the importance of appearance for men was also included. The aim of this study was to investigate whether different types of adolescent media exposure and preferences were linked to SAS and which media factors most strongly indicated SAS. Previous research has provided strong evidence that adolescent girls and boys differ in their media preferences and sexual attitudes; therefore, in the current analyses on the links between media and sexual attitudes, gender was considered a confounding factor. Connections between media and SAS may also differ for girls and boys; therefore, gender was investigated subsequently as a potential moderator of these associations.
Media as Role Models: Theory
Schema theory (Bem 1981) posits that, during adolescence, the understanding of socially dominant definitions of male and female roles, or gender role schemas is extended and refined. The physical maturing of the body and mind and the socio-cultural context defines how to evaluate and handle these changes and prompts adolescents to develop their social and sexual selves in ways that are congruent with socially prevailing gender roles. As previously noted, parents generally follow socially defined patterns concerning these roles and tend to socialize their children accordingly; however, in terms of modeling and instructing on romance and sex, parents may fall short. Adolescents not only turn to their peers but also to media that provide ample examples of such situations (Sutton et al. 2002).
With regard to media’s hypothesized effects, the current research is based on a combination of key assumptions from Priming Theory, Social Cognitive Theory, and the Media Practice Model. A central assumption of Priming Theory (Jo and Berkowitz 1994) is that stimuli can activate cognitive schemas, and that repeated activation leads to strengthening of these schema’s and their rapid availability. Hence, stereotypical media portrayal of sexual roles can enhance the development and activation of schemas with similar stereotypical features. Social Cognitive Theory (Bandura 1986) postulates that people tend to learn from and imitate other people. This process is not limited to reproducing real life people’s lifestyle and preferences, but extends to media models as well. Social learning is far more probable when (1) attitudes and behaviors displayed by models are relevant, (2) role models are attractive and have a high status, and (3) role models appear to benefit from displaying these attitudes and behaviors. Based on these assumptions, it can be argued that adolescents, sensitive to clues on how to refine romantic and sexual gender role schemas, generally find good-looking, socially competent, and successful media personae attractive role models (e.g., Ward et al. 2005).
Communication scientists have stressed that media exposure affects consumers, but that viewers or listeners are not passive victims, intimidated by media messages. A key notion within the Media Practice Model (MPM) (Steele and Brown 1995) is that media choices reflect the needs and preferences of consumers and that the consumers actively shape their own media environment. Currently, it is almost a truism in virtually all media research that users are anything but passive spectators and individual characteristics of consumers affect media’s influence. In the present study the active involvement of adolescents with media was taken into account. Assuming that individual media preferences drive media use, these researchers assumed that media preferences play an important role in addition to more conventional measures of exposure to different media.
An additional condition for adolescent learning from exposure and imitation of media models is that there is at least some degree of similarity concerning the attitudes and behaviors displayed by role models. If a narrow and well-defined range of attitudes and sexual gender roles are on display, imitation seems more likely. When it comes to youth media’s portrayal of romance and sex, this condition is met, as indicated by content analyses, which have provided ample evidence that stereotypical gendered representations of romance and sex prevail (Ward 2003). Hence, exposure to formulaic content of youth media may shape sexual attitudes and stereotypes, and promote chronic adoption of these schemas.
Sexualized Content in Youth Media
Reviews of content analyses of U.S. youth related media have indicated that youth media treatment of the ‘sex theme’ reveals large disparities in approach and influence. Some content may represent sex as a positive life-force and stress the importance of mutual respect and sexual health, while others just focus on sex’s amusement value and arousing potential (Lowry and Shilder 1993; Sapolsky and Tabarlet 1991). Nevertheless, the results of these analyses also suggest that youth media’s portrayal of romance and sex as joyful and loving, and male-female relationships as equal, may be overshadowed by more frequent depictions of casual, even exploitative, and stereotypical sexual behaviors and relationships (Christenson et al. 2004; Ward 2003). Sexual health is rarely touched upon and the potential negative consequences of having sex (i.e., teenage pregnancy, STD) are systematically obscured (Hust et al. 2008).
L’Engle et al. (2006) analyzed 264 U.S. television shows, movies, music videos, and magazines, and classified approximately 28,000 units, out of a total of 236,000 (12%), as having sexual content. Other content analyses of U.S. youth media in general (Kunkel et al. 2003), and more specifically, soap operas (Greenberg and Busselle 1996) and popular music songs (Dukes et al. 2003) have shown that these formats contain large amounts of sexual references and, overall, stereotypical portrayals of male and female gender roles. Other researchers have demonstrated that music videos contain high amounts of sexually charged images and mainstream and non-mainstream pop music features sexually suggestive, if not openly provocative lyrics (Arnett 2002; Baxter et al. 1985; Sherman and Dominick 1986; Ward et al. 2005). Researchers analyzing trends in U.S. pop music lyrics suggest that references to sex have become far more explicit over recent decades (Christenson et al. 2004; Dukes et al. 2003).
In particular, two music genres stand out. During the 80s and 90s, some forms of U.S. heavy metal and hip-hop music were seen as notorious proponents of premarital sex, violence, and adolescent alcohol and drug use. Researchers found a disproportionate amount of music videos in these genres characterized by their highly stereotypical portrayal of females as sexual objects (Ter Bogt 2007). Both Arnett (1996) and Weinstein (2000) determined that, in the symbolic universe of heavy metal, two dominant roles of women are present, that of sexy seductresses and that of threatening and devouring women. Additionally, there has been an overrepresentation of leather, lingerie and latex clad, large-breasted females in song lyrics, album covers, and music videos. Content analyses of hip-hop music has revealed that hip-hop songs and music videos also contain frequent references to alcohol and drugs (Herd 2005), men portrayed as cool, tough, and potentially violent, and women depicted as play-toys and routinely referred to as ‘bitches’ and ‘ho’s’(Martino et al. 2006).
Highly explicit sexual content on the internet, the first truly worldwide medium, is easily within reach for not only U.S. adolescents but for all adolescents in countries with an internet infrastructure and home computers (Braun-Courville and Rojas 2009; Lo and Wei 2005; Peter and Valkenburg 2006a). It is therefore fair to conclude that the most important (U.S.) youth media—TV, music, music video, internet—are saturated with sounds and images of a sexually explicit nature (Brown et al. 2006; Kunkel et al. 2003; Peter and Valkenburg 2006a; Ward 2002, 2003; Ward and Friedman 2006). When frequently exposed to these media, or when actively seeking for this type of content, both girls and boys may receive confirmation that permissive sex is the norm, that looks and sexiness count for women, and that men are sex-driven creatures whose cool and tough looks enhance their pick-up skills (Ward 2002; Ward and Friedman 2006).
Youth Media in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands, a country with 16.5 million inhabitants, three national non-commercial and 11 commercial stations cater to the tastes of general audiences, by either programming a wide range of formats, or by focusing on themes such as sports, travel, comedy, adventure, or documentaries. In addition, two day-time stations address children and early adolescents and two other stations target teens and young adults (Sikkema 2007). Three of the four stations catering to youth belong to the MTV Benelux group and present a mix of music videos, cartoons, and other programs tailored to children’s, adolescents’, and young adults’ preferences. In particular, commercial stations depend heavily on foreign (i.e., American) content and a significant proportion of Dutch TV is, in fact, American TV. Not only is TV ‘Americanized,’ the same holds for pop music. Since the fifties, American pop music has been important, if not dominant, in the Dutch music charts. Large, often American, media corporations acting globally, have left their footprint on the Dutch media landscape (Ter Bogt 2000).
Approximately half of the Netherlands adolescents in the 15–19 year age group report daily TV viewing of 2 hr or more. Radio and music listening through personal audio is similar in terms of amount of time listening to these media. The greatest shift in Dutch adolescent media consumption relates to the advent of the internet. The Netherlands ranks among the countries with the highest penetration of broadband internet. While radio listening and reading magazines has decreased, now more than 95% of Dutch adolescents report using computers to find information, chat, surf, or listen and download music (Sikkema 2007). For example, 13–17-year-olds spent, on average, 1.5–2 hr per day in front of their computer screens (SPOTtime 2008). In recent Dutch surveys, findings indicate that a substantial proportion of Dutch youth consume adult internet content (Hawk et al. 2006). Peter and Valkenburg (2006a) observed that during a 6-month period preceding their survey, approximately 75% of 13–18-year-old males, and 40% of females had at least once been exposed to on-line graphic sexual content.
Each day, for a considerable period, Dutch youth consume American, or similar, media formats. Detailed content analyses of the degree of sexualized typecasting in Dutch youth media currently do not exist; however, in a large 24-country study including the Netherlands, of gender representation in youth TV, high cross-national similarities were found in stereotyped representations of women and men (Götz et al. 2008). Based on this information, it is fair to propose that Dutch youth are subject to similar stereotypical messages as their peers in the U.S., or, for that matter, young people in other countries with a high proportion of youth media content of American origin. However, it must be noted that that cross-cultural differences in the interpretation of these messages are possible. In the Dutch context, these stereotypical messages may be less relevant or meaningful, as the wider socio-cultural context advocates little gender differentiation (e.g. Hofstede 2001). Regardless, even in this context, youth media can be conceptualized as a main factor pushing the other way (i.e., promoting stereotypical gender roles and sexual attitudes).
Media, Gender, Sexual Attitudes and Stereotypes
It is remarkable that teen media use, at least in the U.S., the UK, and the Netherlands, often has a solitary nature: most young people watch, listen, game, surf, and chat in the relative privacy of their own room, that is, free from parental monitoring or comments (North et al. 2000; Sikkema 2007; Ward 2002). In turn, unmonitored consumption of media results in more exposure to sexual content within that media (Kim et al. 2006). Cross-sectional and longitudinal investigations have found that frequent exposure to sexual media content is associated with intentions to have sex and accelerated adolescents’ initiation and continuation of sexual activities (Aubrey et al. 2003; Brown et al. 2005; Collins et al. 2004; Kim et al. 2006; L’Engle et al. 2006; Martino et al. 2006; Martino et al. 2005).
Media may not only affect behaviors, but may also be of prime importance for adolescents’ general ideas of romance, sex, and relationships. In the U.S., exposure to youth TV content or prime-time TV (i.e., soaps operas, drama, talk-shows) has been linked to more positive attitudes toward casual, pre-, or extramarital sex (Bryant and Rockwell 1994; Huston et al. 1998; Ward and Rivadeneyra 1999; Ward 2002; Ward and Friedman 2006). Similarly, exposure to music television has been connected to permissive attitudes in the U.S. (Calfin et al. 1993; Greeson and Williams 1986; Strouse et al. 1995; Ward and Frieman 2006; Ward et al. 2005). The link between consumption of sexually explicit internet material and endorsement of casual sex has also been confirmed in research conducted in Hong Kong (Lam and Chan 2007), the Netherlands (Peter and Valkenburg 2006b, 2008b), Taiwan (Lo and Wei 2005), and the U.S. (Carroll et al. 2008; Braun-Courville and Rojas 2009).
In the U.S. context, exposure to prime time TV or youth TV content, has also been associated with more stereotypical sexual attitudes and evaluation styles (i.e., the view that men are stereotypically sex-driven, the notion of women are sexual objects to be valued for their looks) (Ward 2002; Ward and Friedman 2006; Zurbriggen and Morgan 2006), and, more generally, the idea that appearance or sexiness is of key importance for both women (e.g., Aubrey 2006) and men (e.g., Smolak and Stein 2006). Pop music and music videos have also been shown to amplify stereotypical gender schemas (Arnett 2002; Carpentier et al. 2007; Hansen and Hansen 1988; Hansen and Krygowski 1994; Ward et al. 2005), to foster beliefs that gender relationships are adversarial (Kalof 1999), and that appearance is all-important (Borzekowski et al. 2000; Ward et al. 2006). Recently, the negative effects of exposure to sexually explicit internet material have become more certifiable. In a Dutch study, researchers found that watching pornographic content was significantly associated with sexual objectification of women (Peter and Valkenburg 2007). Of further note, studies on the effects of sexually explicit internet material have shown that, relative to other media content, exposure to and preference for the most sexually explicit material, is indicative of the strongest endorsement of permissive sex and sexual stereotyping (Lo and Wei 2005; Peter and Valkenburg 2006b, 2007).
In most of the studies reviewed here, gender differences have not been explicitly tested. However, from the studies that did explicitly examine this content, it is clear that, across countries, boys and young men tend to search for sexy content more often than girls and women (Peter and Valkenburg 2008a, b; Wolak et al. 2007); however, with regard to the links between sexualized media content, sexual attitudes, and stereotypes, mixed results emerged. For example, Ward (2002), and Strouse et al. (1995) reported that, in relation to media use, young women were more sensitive to notions of the importance of appearance and sexiness and more inclined to endorse permissive ideas than boys were. Conversely, Aubrey (2006) and Peter and Valkenburg (2007) did not find gender differences in connection with youth media exposure and permissive attitudes and sexual stereotypes. It must be noted that results of these studies are difficult to compare as they concern diverse media formats and different measurements of attitudes and stereotypes.
The Present Study
Research on multi-media exposure and use and sexual attitudes and stereotypical gender-role schemas (SAS) is scarce (Escobar-Chaves et al. 2005; Ward 2003). As far as the authors of the present study know, exposure to and preferences for the three most consumed adolescent media in the Netherlands, TV, music/music video, and the internet, have not been included in one systematic approach.
In the present study, the active involvement of adolescents with media was taken into account by modeling preferences, in addition to more conventional measures of exposure. A wide range of TV (nine) and music preferences (ten) was included in the current study. In addition, respondents’ propensity to use the internet in different ways was measured. Preference for four types of surfing and three types of communicating with peers were integrated into the research designs.
Research has demonstrated that media choices and sexual attitudes and stereotypes co-vary with personality factors such as sensation seeking, sexual experience, and background characteristics such as educational attainment (reviews Eggermont 2006; Hawk et al. 2006; Peter and Valkenburg 2007). In order to provide a balanced account of the extent to which media exposure and preferences (MEP) relate to SAS, education, sensation seeking, and sexual experience were included in the analyses as confounding factors. Furthermore, gender is an important factor related to this topic. As adolescent females and males differ in their media viewing and both groups manifest sexual attitudes and stereotypes to different degrees (e.g., Ward 2003), gender was introduced as a confounder of the relation between those two sets of factors. Next, in order to explore whether media were similarly associated with SAS for boys and girls, it was relevant to subsequently test whether gender moderated the links between MEP and SAS.
Finally, much research has been directed toward college students (in the U.S.) and investigations among teenagers from 12 to 16-years-old, the group most intensely involved in developing sexual attitudes, is limited (Peter and Valkenburg 2007; Ward and Friedman 2006; Ward et al. 2005). The current research is one of the few conducted outside the U.S., which addresses this highly important group of early and mid-adolescents at the early stages of their sexual identity formation.
Figure 1 shows a simplified model of media exposure and preferences (MEP) and sexual attitudes and stereotypes (SAS). On the left side of Fig. 1, personal characteristics are represented (gender, educational level, sexual experience, and sensation seeking). Also included are media exposure (TV, music/music TV, internet surfing, internet chatting); music preferences (10 genres); and internet preferences (four types of surfing and three types of chatting). On the right side, indicated by ellipses, four latent factors are shown, representing sexual attitudes (casual sex is OK) and stereotypes (men are sex-driven, women as objects, men as tough). Single headed arrows indicate possible links between background characteristics, personality, and MEP, on the one hand, and SAS on the other. The double headed arrows indicate potential covariation between predictors and between outcomes. Therefore, the current study extends the prior literature by exploring the relative importance of different types of media for the endorsement of sexual attitudes and stereotypical gender-role schemas, while controlling for confounders that have been shown to influence sexual attitudes. Additional multigroup analyses explore potential gender differences in these links.
This study attempted to answer three questions;
Are different types of media exposure and preferences linked to adolescent sexual attitudes and gender stereotypes?
Which media factors most strongly indicate sexual attitudes and gender stereotypes?
Are relations between media exposure and preferences and sexual attitudes and gender stereotypes moderated by gender?
Based on the review of the literature, it is difficult to formulate precise hypotheses, as prior research addressed many different media formats and content types, mostly separately. In addition, associations between MEP and SAS may, or may not be gender specific. Three general hypotheses can be formulated. As youth media generally contains frequent references to sex and stereotypical portrayals of gender-roles it was expected that:
More frequent exposure to youth media—TV, music/music videos, internet—is correlated with higher endorsement of permissive sex and more stereotypical gender-role attitudes.
Some genres stand out for their typecasting, in particular, music videos, and hip hop and heavy metal music. Preferring the most stereotypical media may be connected more strongly with permissiveness and stereotypical attitudes:
Preferences for specific media types—music videos, heavy metal and hip-hop music—are linked to stronger endorsement of permissive sex and stereotypical gender-role attitudes, when other factors are controlled.
Exposure to and preferences for the most sexually explicit content has been related more strongly to permissive attitudes and sexual stereotypes compared to weaker content. It was therefore expected that:
Preferences for sexually explicit TV or internet content is the strongest indicator of permissive sex and stereotypical gender-role attitudes when other factors are controlled.