Calling media portrayals of sex "unhealthy," the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued new guidelines calling on all media outlets to present human sexuality in a healthy, scientifically accurate manner.
At the same time, the group pomoted the use of contraceptives among teenagers and denigrated abstinence-only education.
"There is a major disconnect between what mainstream media portray - casual sex and sexuality with no consequences - and what children and teenagers need - straightforward information about human sexuality and the need for contraception when having sex," the AAP said.
"Television, film, music, and the Internet are all becoming increasingly sexually explicit, yet information on abstinence, sexual responsibility, and birth control remains rare," said the AAP.
The organization, with 60,000-plus members, said that because children and young adults spend an inordinate amount of time interacting with various media, it was important for the portrayals of sex in that media to be accurate and responsible.
"American children and teenagers spend more than 7 hours a day with a variety of different media. Those media are filled with sexual messages and images, many of which are unrealistic," the AAP said. "Talk about sex on TV can occur as often as 8 to 10 times per hour. Between 1997 and 2001 alone, the amount of sexual content on TV nearly doubled."
This proliferation of inaccurate sexual messages has had documented effects on youth sexual behavior, the AAP reported. Kids exposed to sexual material on television are almost twice as likely to engage in sexually risky behavior at a younger age than youth whose parents limit their exposure to sexually saturated media.
Other studies have shown that exposure to sexualized media content doubled the risk of teen pregnancy. "Clearly, the media play a major role in determining whether certain teenagers become sexually active earlier rather than later, and sexually explicit media may be particularly important," the AAP stated.
These negative trends are happening at a time when public sexual education has favored a scientifically unfounded, abstinence only approach, said the organization, adding that as public policy has avoided providing youth with accurate information about sex, the media have become the sexual educator of "last resort."
"Because so many sex education programs have recently been focused on abstinence only, the media have arguably become one of the leading sex educators in the United States today," the AAP said. "Yet, parents and legislators fail to understand that although they may favor abstinence-only sex education (despite the lack of any evidence of its effectiveness), the media are decidedly not abstinence only."
In fact, the American media can be among "the most sexually-suggestive media in the world," according to the AAP. The effect of this is that media can act as a "super-peer" on youth, exerting an influence on sexual behavior stronger than that of a child's parents.
One major problem - labeled "dangerous" by the AAP - with the media's portrayal of sex is the lingering myth that access to contraception affects sexual behavior patterns. Because the media play such a large role in providing information about sex to young people, this dearth of accurate information about contraceptives leaves teens at a disadvantage as they become sexually active.
"The United States is the only Western nation that still subscribes to the dangerous myth that giving teenagers access to birth control - and media represent a form of access - will make them sexually active at a younger age," the AAP explained.
In response to these twin problems, the AAP called on media to do two things: remove some inappropriate sexual content from programming likely to be viewed by children and substitute it with accurate, educational information about sex.
"Pediatricians and child advocacy groups should encourage the entertainment industry to produce more programming that contains responsible sexual content and that focuses on the interpersonal relationship in which sexual activity takes place," the AAP said.
"Similarly, Madison Avenue and advertisers need to be encouraged to stop using sex to sell products," said the group.
In addition to changing media programming, the AAP also called for comprehensive sex education in schools and increased advertisements for contraceptives.
"Pediatricians should urge the broadcast industry to air advertisements for birth control products," the AAP said.
Dr. Vic Strasburger, the policy's lead author, said that scientific studies showed that increased advertising for birth control would lead to "one thing and one thing only" - increased use of contraception.
"The research is quite clear, the media represent one access point for children and teenagers about birth control and giving teenagers access to birth control does one thing and one thing only - that is it makes them more likely to use birth control when they begin having sex," Strasburger told CNSNews.com.
"As parents and as adults, we couldn't be doing a worse job," Strasburger said. "We do a terrible job of preparing kids to be happy, healthy, sexual adults."