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It Works Both Ways: The Relationship between Exposure to Sexual Content in the Media and Adolescent Sexual Behavior



Using a longitudinal web-based survey of adolescents 14-16 years of age, we estimate regression models where self-reported sexual behavior and content analytic-based exposure to sex in the media are related cross-sectionally and longitudinally. We find evidence for both cross-sectional non-recursive and prospective longitudinal relationships even after adjusting for both established predictors of sexual behavior (e.g., physical development, having a romantic partner, parental monitoring, peer and parental norms, respondent’s age) and of exposure to sexual media content (e.g., time the respondent goes to bed, extracurricular activities, television in the bedroom, total time spent with television, music, videogames, and magazines). Sexually active adolescents are more likely to expose themselves to sex in the media and those exposed to sex in the media are more likely to progress in their sexual activity. These findings are consistent with others in the literature that demonstrate a causal effect of exposure to sexual content on sexual behavior but extend established results by also looking at the causal effect of sexual behavior on exposure both cross-sectionally and over time.