Last year MTV sent out a casting call for young adults (ages 18-25) who were on the verge of losing their virginity to appear on a new reality series, reports the Daily Mail. This, from the same network that gave us “Teen Mom,” “16 and Pregnant,” “Jersey Shore,” “The Real World,” “Skins,” and “The Hard Times of R.J. Berger.”
With such a pedigree of responsible messaging on teen sex, you just know MTV will handle the issue of first-time sex with dignity, responsibility, respect, and good taste, right?
The sad truth is that MTV is probably one of the country’s top sex educators. And that’s not a good thing.
Note that the casting call didn’t seek out young adults who are virgins and are committed to remaining virgins until marriage. It didn’t seek out teens who are happy with their decision to be abstinent. It specifically sought to find virgins who were eager to ditch their virginity, so MTV could be there to document and televise it in all its awkward, uncomfortable glory.
Television has been described as a “sexual super-peer” and that’s a helpful way to look at the ways in which programming influences behavior. But if TV is a “super-peer,” MTV is the “mean girl” of that peer group; routinely belittling, ridiculing, and marginalizing teens who choose to remain abstinent, and it seems clear that is part of their agenda with this new reality program.
MTV is the most recognized network among young adults ages 12 to 34, according to Nielsen Media Research. It is watched by 73% of boys and 78% of girls ages 12 to 19. Boys watch for an average of 6.6 hours per week and girls watch for an average of 6.2 hours per week.
MTV is owned by Viacom, the same corporate giant that owns Nickelodeon and Nick Jr.; and that corporate synergy ensures that even the youngest TV viewers are getting acclimated to the MTV brand. As one TV critic put it: “Nickelodeon isn’t just SpongeBob Squarepants: It’s a gateway station to crotch- grabbing MTV. With millions of viewers, Nickelodeon offers the perfect cross-marketing vehicle for Viacom: Kids love it; parents trust its programming.”
MTV does influence young viewers. According to Dr. Jane Brown, journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, “If you believe Sesame Street taught your four-year-old something, then you better believe MTV is teaching your 14-year-old something, because the influence doesn’t stop when we come to a certain age.”
Indeed, research shows that watching MTV changes the attitudes and perceptions of young viewers. At least two experiments show that watching MTV results in more permissive attitudes about sex. One experiment showed found that college students who were assigned to watch MTV developed more liberal attitudes toward premarital sex than their peers who did not watch MTV as part of the study.
The second found that seventh and ninth graders were more likely to approve of premarital sex after watching MTV for one hour.
Other studies have shown that greater exposure to and greater involvement with sexual content on TV leads to a stronger endorsement of recreational sex, higher expectations of the sexual activity of one’s peers, and more extensive sexual experience.
Similarly, studies on mass media influences on sexuality conclude that people who watch television programs containing depictions of attractive characters who enjoy having sexual intercourse and rarely suffer any negative consequences will be likely to imitate the behavior. Media audiences are most likely to learn that sex is consequence-free, rarely planned, and more a matter of lust than love. They are also likely to learn patterns of aggressive sexual behavior.
I don’t assume that MTV is setting out to promote teen sex, but whether that is their intention or not, it will inevitably be a consequence of this programming decision. And the other unintended consequences include more teen pregnancy, more teen depression, alcohol and substance abuse, higher risk of contracting an STD.
At the end of the day, good intentions don’t always yield good results. MTV still has zero credibility as an advocate for sexual health for teens or young adults.