Sexual Imagery and Teens

I just love BS sciency headlines that draw absurd conclusions from facts not in evidence, cite studies that are woefully incomplete even by the standards of the scientists involved, and make bold declarations with no connection to reality. In this case it’s an article at that wants to assure us that swimming in a cultural swamp does nothing at all to affect the psyches of teenagers with a headline that blares “Teenagers not taken in by raunchy imagery”.

Let’s unpack that nonsense.

Here’s their premise: “School-age teenagers are widely exposed to sexualised and raunchy imagery, but are developing their own ways of dealing with it, a Flinders University sociology researcher has found.”

Okay. Now, define teenagers, please: “As part of her recently completed PhD, Ms Monique Mulholland undertook a study involving children aged 13 to 16 from three Adelaide high schools.”

So far so good. Those are teenagery enough to fit the bill. But … hold on a minute. Some facts I always want to know about any study are missing. What’s the sample size? Where was it drawn from? What are the demographics? Income levels? Race? Nationality? Intelligence? Family situation? Prior exposure to mature imagery? The study says the children were drawn from three high schools in an Australian city. Are we to extrapolate to a global teenage population from such a small and uniform sample?

During the heyday of the “Videogames cause spree killers!” hysteria, I read enough garbage studies, based on a few dozen kids who filled out a survey, to be very leery about bold conclusions. We’ll see in a moment that Ms. Mulholland is equally reserved in her final judgement, which does her credit. In fact, there have been very, very few studies on the links between violent videogames and violent/antisocial behavior that can claim anything approaching conclusive results. Those that are conclusive–such as the Kutner/Olson study at the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media–have shown very subtle effects that don’t make for good one-dimensional headlines.

(In case you’re wondering about videogames/violence link, short answer: “no” to a direct link to violent or criminal behavior, “yes” to a modest increase in “antisocial” behavior, but impossible to conclude which came first: antisocial kids drawn to violent games, or violent games making kids antisocial.)

So, what was the nature of Ms. Mulholland’s PhD study? It “used a series of whole-class activities designed to elicit the response of adolescents to sexualized images popularly available in mainstream media, advertising, music video clips, and internet cultures. (No pornographic imagery was viewed as part of the study.)”

Hold on there, pardner. First, “whole-class activities” sounds a lot like showing pictures to a group of kids and then asking their responses, after they stop giggling and elbowing each other. Second, I’m really happy that no pornographic imagery was used in this study, because the only way to get a real result would be to expose thousands of minors to images they should never see in the first place. In other words, you’d have to destroy the innocence of your sample in the process of finding the information you want. Kudos for not doing this.

However, if you’re showing kids the equivalent of the JC Penny catalog underwear models I used to search out as a boy, along with a few Lady Gaga videos and GoDaddy commercials, you’re not really getting a read on how they’re reacting. While this approach is slightly useful for determining how teens respond to the steady background noise of casual cultural smut, it’s not like you’re hitting them with anything new. As Madge the manicurist might have said, “They’re already soaking in it!”

Ms. Mulholland said that although the images didn’t seem to be “taking over their hearts and minds,” there are remaining concerns about the long-term effects of exposure to this kind of imagery. Her goal was to see whether or not increased access to certain kinds of sexualized images was causing a “loss of moral sense with regards to sexuality.” She says this was not her observation, and that “They weren’t saying that anything goes. They haven’t normalised it: rather, they are keeping it at a distance, often by using humor. The young people are saying that they’re laughing at it, and it seems that they still have very conventional ideas of what’s good and bad.”

I’m glad to hear that, if it’s true. However, that really doesn’t speak to the issue of desensitization, does it? Actually, it seems like the desensitization has already occurred. The mystique of the erotic is debased when it becomes so ubiquitous. The default response to the beauty and majesty of the exposed human form is only “humorous” when people (mostly boys) are in a group, and then it’s a nervous laughter, which indicates embarrassment at seeing something disconnected from its rightful place and context. I don’t remember laughing when I was alone and seeing naked pictures of women as a teen. I remember … awe. And desire. The laughter and “humor” is in itself an indication that something is wrong: the teens are perceiving that the images in front of them have become unmoored from their rightful context in either marriage or high art, and become cheap coin used to sell beer, internet providers, or shoddy music.

Ms. Mulholland continues: “They are saying they have some agency in this, that they are quite savvy about it.” Based on my own experience as a parent and teacher of teens, I don’t see any reason to dispute that. Kids do have some sense of these images: too much sense. They’ve been bombarded with them from a young age. My children have never had open access to television, partly in order to control the content of the programming itself, but also because the advertisements were the most offensive part of the experience. Everything they watch is recorded or streamed, which means they just don’t have that exposure. My teen son is starting to see some more of it, because he’s at the age where I feel it’s appropriate. I’m guessing that most of the kids in the study, however, have seen this junk since they were knee-high to a grape. They already created their context and their coping techniques: it’s already too late.

And now we get to the very last paragraph of the article, which shows just why the headline was a lie, and why almost every piece of reporting you read on any “study” is worthless. Here’s the whole thing:

Ms. Mulholland said it could not assess the long-term and individual effects of ‘raunch culture’ on the actual sexual practices of teenagers, which, she said, remain an issue of major concern.“While young people are not blindly mimicking what they see, it has to affect them somehow, and the ease of access is still deeply concerning,” she said. Ms. Mulholland believes that more research is needed to help in formulating policy about a practical response. She said that parents, authorities and schools need to deal rationally with the existence of the phenomenon, since the effect of ‘protective panics’ is that children are denied proper practical support and advice in dealing with what they may see.

Waaaait a second. Ms. Mulholland is making a few modest claims which the article and headline is trying to extrapolate into bold conclusions. It said teens were doing just fine with all this imagery. The person actually conducting the study says she couldn’t assess the long-term effects of “raunch culture,” and adds that “it has to affect them somehow, and the ease of access is still deeply concerning.”

She’s saying more research is needed and adults need to find rational ways to deal with guiding children though the culture as it exists. That’s the opposite of  the headline of this article, “Teenagers not taken in by raunchy imagery.” She’s saying that they’re finding ways to deal with it. Of course they are. It’s not like they have a choice in the matter. They’ve already had to develop coping mechanisms. But are they healthy ones? What are the long-term effects on sexual identity, behavior, self-confidence, relationships, and health? Although both genders fall prey to body-image issues due to the effects of mass media, girls are affected far more than boys. How does this impact their reactions?

I often read about how conservatives “misuse” science to further their agenda. I have no doubt it happens, but it’s just a bit of spit in the wind compared to the tsunami of misinformation pumped into the public consciousness by an overwhelmingly secular, left-leaning mass media. They just want to reassure us that all is well and nothing’s wrong and go about your business, amen. Unless it’s something they want us to stop doing (like drinking soda or smoking), and then the studies all say “You’re all gonna dieeeeee! Aiiiiiii!” The truth is, studies rarely produce incontrovertible proof about anything. As Kathy Shaidle like to say, “Studies show most studies are BS.”

Sometimes studies can be useful. And sometimes they can be harmful, such as when they try to attach a veneer of definitiveness to some pronouncement when the results are, in fact, far from conclusive. Today’s “settled science” may well be tomorrow’s superstition. This is why science, particularly any kind of social science, can’t be the sole factor in determining policies and responses. God gave us science as a tool, not as an idol. He also gave us common sense. And when the two appear to contradict each other–such as the idea of pervasive sexual imagery having no effect on developing minds–it’s always better bet to go with common sense.


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