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September 25, 2013

Adolescent Sex: Parental Roles & Media Influences

by Angel Pumila

Adolescent Sex:

Parental Roles and Media Influences

Angel Sagona Pumila




Adolescents in today’s society have a more difficult time than ever coping with their own sexuality and the expectations of those in their social circles. While the sixties produced the idea that free love was acceptable, that generation of love did not have the media images that children are exposed to today. In the 1950s, pornography mostly consisted of images of scantily clad women. In the 1960s, nudity became the norm in pornography. It progressed even more over the next decades to include sexual acts between men and women or same-gender sex. Today, however, the Internet gives children access to a barrage of images of people actually having all types of sex with multiple partners considered a normal course of events. Children can watch all sorts of abnormal sexual behavior, which when exposed over and over, can become normal to them.

Literature Review

In “How can parents make a difference? Longitudinal association with adolescent sexual behavior,” by Daneen P. Deptula, David B. Henry and Michael E. Schoeny, the authors suggest that, “Parents have the potential to protect against adolescent sexual risk, including early sexual behavior, inconsistent condom use, and outcomes such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs)” (Deptula, Henry, & Schoeny, 2010). They argue that communication is the only effective tools parents have to help prevent sexual diseases and pregnancies and suggest that the quality of the relationship between parent and child influences how early the child becomes sexually active, as well as their sexual behaviors throughout their development.

In “Tackling the topic of teen sex,” Victoria Clayton agrees that communication between parent and child is important, but she suggests that the influences of the media and all of the images children see are more influential than parents in determining the child’s sexual behaviors. This author seems to think that it’s all about the influences around the child, including peer groups and how much exposure the child has to pornography on the Internet.

For the purpose of this paper, I will examine these arguments and try to determine just how much influence parents really have with regard to the sexual behaviors in their children.


This topic is extremely important to lifespan development, as the choices made by adolescents with regard to their sexual behaviors can have a direct impact on the rest of their lives. For example, the young girl who becomes pregnant at 16 years old does not have the same educational opportunities as other girls her age because she must now support and care for a child. Her ability to earn a living to care for her family becomes steeply impaired through a lack of education, and typically, she can look forward to a life of poverty. The disturbing news is that children seem to be experimenting with sex at younger and younger ages, and the rules have changed.

According to Clayton, “Recent media reports about teen sexual activity undoubtedly have many parents concerned. Newspaper articles and TV segments have suggested that “hooking up” and having “friends with benefits” are disturbingly common behaviors among today’s kids. (In case you aren’t up on this terminology, “hooking up” is the new way to say “one-night stand.” If the nights turn into a series but still no relationship, that’s a “friend with benefits) (Clayton, 2011). ” Clayton says this is really nothing new, but the disturbing part is that children are so nonchalant about having sex without relationships. She notes that the problem is the Internet, that it has become a singles bar for all ages with no holds barred.

Deptula, Henry and Schoeny argue that parents have several mechanisms through which to help their children deal with sexual issues, including communication, monitoring, involvement, educational aspirations and allowing their children to be independent. Their research indicates that, “higher levels of parental monitoring have been associated with fewer sexual partners, lower levels of sexual activity, and more consistent condom use” (Deptual, Henry, Schoeny, 2010). They also suggest that low educational aspirations, which are associated with poverty, can promote risky sexual behaviors. Parents can lower risks for unwanted pregnancies and STIs through pushing education and spending quality time with their children. These authors argue that parental attitudes and behaviors, even when they are unrelated to sexuality, still influence their children’s behaviors.


The authors of both articles seem to agree that parents do have some influence over their children’s sexual behaviors. However, Clayton wonders how much influence parents really have when television and the Internet constantly bombard children with images that seem to define sexuality. Clayton says that, “When it comes to sex, teens need—and have always needed—help from their parents. Unfortunately, the vast majority of parents still never have a conversation with their kids about sex beyond maybe giving them information about reproductive biology” (Clayton, 2011). Many parents are unaware of much of what their children see because they are not technologically savvy enough to keep up with their children’s activities on the Internet. Chat rooms, dating sites, porn sites, it almost takes a computer technician to trace their children’s activities, and that’s almost impossible for most parents.

Deptula, Henry and Schoeny argue that communication in and of itself is not effective at protecting children from themselves and their raging hormones, but that the type of communication and specificity is more important.”With respect to emotional tone, Dutra et al. (1999) found that open and receptive communication about sex was associated with lower levels of sexual risk. In addition, Mueller and Powers (1990) found that warm and friendly adolescent perceptions of parents’ general communication were associated with lower levels of sexual activity and higher levels of contraceptive use. Dominant, contentious, and dramatic parenting communication styles were related to risky adolescent sexual behavior. An interesting result of the current study was that parental reports of comfort and confidence in communicating with their teens was not related to sexual risk. Instead, adolescents perceptions of the nature of the conversation may be more important (Deptula, Henry, Schoeny, 2010).

Both articles support parental involvement and communication as a means to influence children against risky sexual behaviors. Clayton says that children model their behavior after their parents. According to this author, “If you’re hooking up indiscriminately online or engaging in sex-only relationships, don’t be surprised if your kids model that behavior. Of course, the opposite is also true. Show them a loving, affectionate relationship and they’re likely to seek the same for themselves (Clayton, 2011). She says that parents should begin supporting their children’s thoughts, feelings and values as early as possible because the strongest weapon against outside influences is the family base that has been established. She says that parents should talk to children about those influences, including pornography, but that it should not be portrayed as bad. “Instead,” she says, “Talk about how pornography usually glamorizes sex or even makes it look more brutal or outrageous than it typically is. The idea is to offer your kids a reality check” (Clayton, 2011).

Deptula, Henry and Schoeny agree that communication with children should not focus on the negative because then all children hear is “no,” and their natural instinct is to question and even rebel. These authors determined through their research that, “prevention efforts should focus on adolescent-parent relationship building and developing the skills to have a positive, open dialogue about sexual activity” (Deptula, Henry, Schoeny, 2010).

While both articles agree on communication being an important element in preventing unwanted sexual behaviors, Clayton seems to be much less optimistic about its effectiveness. She gives much more weight to outside influences than do the other authors. She also seems more concerned about what the future holds with regard to sexual behaviors and children. She says that parents should limit their children’s access to computers and television and monitor all activities intently. Deptula, Henry and Schoeny agree that monitoring is necessary, but their article provides communication as the ultimate solution.


The problem of coping with sexuality and with what to do and what not to do is a difficult one for many adolescents. On one hand, children have parents and other family members telling them that having sex too young is wrong and that there can be many bad outcomes from having sex, including STIs and pregnancy. On the other hand, children are bombarded with sexual images in many shows and commercials on television. As they become teenagers and begin browsing the Internet, their exposure to images increases, and these images are not censored like those on television. Many children are watching people having sex, including bizarre sex with multiple partners, and for these children, ideas about what sex is supposed to be are becoming somewhat warped.

Clayton noted in her article that, “Individuals exposed to a high level of pornographic videos were significantly less satisfied with their sexual partner’s attractiveness and sexual adventurousness, less interested in being in an emotionally committed relationship and less interested in having children” (Clayton, 2011). She states that those children who have grown up surrounded with normal relationships are more likely to be able to sustain normal relationships in their own adult life. For this author, it’s all about exposure—the less pornography to which a child is exposed, the more normal sexual life the child will have.

For many parents, even knowing exactly what their children are doing when parents are at work or children are at school or participating in extracurricular activities is difficult. You cannot monitor children all day every day. However Deptula, Henry and Schoeny state that with the proper parental controls in place, open communication and rules, children will ultimately do what they are supposed to do.

I disagree. I think that parents can monitor their children. They can place controls on computers to keep children off sites they should not visit. They can monitor what television shows are watched. They can monitor friends, talk with friends’ parents and make a concerted effort to always know exactly where their children are and what they are doing. The problem is that this takes a lot of work, and most parents are so busy making a living that they don’t have the time or energy it takes to monitor their children at all times.

Yes, communication is important. Talking positively with children about sex is a first step toward preventing unwanted pregnancies, but being “in the know” is also very important. Parents need to be informed about teenage sexual trends. For example, the language of teenagers is important. “Hooking up,” to a parent may mean going out on a date, but to a teenager, it means having a one-night stand. Sexting is another aspect of teenage sexuality that parents need to know. Many teenagers are sending naked or provocative pictures of themselves through text messages. Some parents remain unaware of this practice that teenagers do because “everyone does it.” In many states, sexting has become illegal and teenagers can be penalized for this practice.

Being knowledgeable about what adolescents are doing is the biggest step in preventing children from doing the same thing. Children give in to peer pressure, and parents need to be aware of what kinds of things their children are being pressured to do. Without knowledge, parents do not have the tools to help their children grow into mature, sexual adults who engage in healthy sexual behaviors. I feel that while communication with children is very important, knowledge is the most powerful weapon a parent can possess.


Clayton, Victoria.; (2011).  Tackling the Topic of Teen Sex. MSNBC.  Retrieved May 28, 2011 from

Deptula, Daneen P.; Henry, David B.; Schoeny, Michael E.; Journal of Family Psychology, Vol 24(6), Dec, 2010. pp. 731-739.

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