Seven in 10 television shows watched by teens now contain some form of sexual content, while each show contains more sexual references than they did a few years ago, according to a survey released Wednesday.

The study found that American teens, who spend an average of three hours per day watching television, now see an average of six sexual scenes per hour when watching in prime time. That’s significantly more than the 4.4 scenes per hour teens saw during the same study in 2002.

In all, the number of sexual scenes contained in about 1,000 shows sampled nearly doubled from 1,930 in 1998 to 3,780 in 2005, the study found. The study included shows on cable and broadcast television.

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Impact on Teens

According to researchers, the study clearly shows that American children and teens are exposed to an increasing level and range of sexual TV content. But the impact of that exposure is still largely unknown.

One federally funded study pegged repeated media depictions of sex as an important determinant of how early teens start having sex. But the increase in sexual TV content comes at a time when rates of teen pregnancy and sexual activity are down from the last decade.

Still, 750,000 teenagers become pregnant each year, while an estimated 4 million contract sexually transmitted diseases.

“We are not saying that TV is to blame for this problem. But research is saying TV has an impact and has an opportunity to help,” said Victoria Rideout, who co-authored the study for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

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Reaction on Capitol Hill

The study sampled a wide range of sexual content, including conversational references to sex, implied sex acts, and depicted sexual intercourse.

Researchers found that just 14% of shows depicting sex also contained references to risk or to safe sex. That's down from 15% in 2002 but was still a significant rise from 9% in 1998, according to the study.

Increasing exposure to TV sex and violence has lead to threats from Congress to more strictly regulate TV networks. Those threats often run up against concerns that they might infringe on the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. But in response, many networks have submitted to voluntary ratings systems while promoting the use of parental control technologies like the V-chip.

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Networks Under Scrutiny

Nearly seven in 10 parents in a 2004 Kaiser Foundation survey said that they were “very concerned” about the amount of sexual content their kids see on TV.

Fox president and CEO Tony Vinciquerra said that his network uses voluntary content ratings and has spent “tens of millions of dollars” promoting them to parents.

Nearly all cable and satellite television services come with channel or program lock-out functions, Vinciquerra said. “It’s a five-minute exercise. It’s not difficult and parents do need to take that responsibility.”

Rebecca Collins, PhD, a RAND corporation researcher who conducted the separate federal study completed in 2004, said the amount of sexual content teens view was found to be one of the most important influences on how early they start having sex.

Single-parent homes and spending time with mostly older friends were stronger influences, but time spent watching sexual content was third, she said.

“It’s hard to quantify exactly what the effect of TV is,” Collins said. Still, “12-year-olds who watched a lot of sex looked like 14-to-15-year-olds” in their sexual behavior.

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Others cautioned that television is just one aspect of youth culture that includes family, peers, school, and religion, as well as the Internet, movies, and music.

“Media absolutely is important, but let’s not pretend it’s the only thing,” said Sarah Brown, president of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Sen. Barak Obama (D-Ill.) told reporters and others that Congress could still consider pushing legislation that tightens regulations on broadcasters.

“Let’s start by turning off our TV sets once in a while,” he said.

By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: “Sex on TV 4” Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Nov. 9, 2005. Victoria Rideout, vice president, Kaiser Family Foundation. Tony Vinciquerra, president and CEO, Fox Networks Group. Sarah Brown, president, National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Sen. Barak Obama (D-Ill.).