The incessant sex talk on NBC's Friends actually has a positive point. Or so researchers from the RAND Corporation say in the November issue of the journal Pediatrics.
"RAND Health researchers surveyed a group of teens who had watched an episode of the popular comedy with a plot that included a pregnancy caused by a condom failure," the research company says in a press release. "The study found that most viewers remembered that the episode contained information about condom effectiveness."
In fact, 10 percent of the 12- to 17-year-olds who'd seen the episode talked about condom effectiveness with an adult after the episode. These students wound up seeing "condoms as more effective than they had in a survey conducted prior to the episode," the company said.
"We've always known that teenagers get useful information about sex from factual reporting and advice-oriented media, but now we know they can get this information from entertainment television programs as well," said lead study author Rebecca Collins. "That's important because entertainment programs, especially highly rated ones like Friends, reach many more teens."
But what are these shows teaching? For one thing, during that Friends episode, characters twice said that condoms are "only 97 percent effective." The latex industry likes that number, but most put the typical failure rate for condoms much higher. The 1995 National Survey of Family Growth put the failure rate at 14 percent—and, for some groups, as high as 45 percent. (That 97 percent effectiveness statistic is purely academic, and refers only to cases where condoms are used perfectly—and when you're talking about teens, you can't talk about using condoms perfectly.)
But in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Walter Kirn eschews such number crunching for the big picture. "RAND, in its gee-whiz social-science way, spins its data as positively as possible, forgetting the dozens of other lessons, many of them not so helpful, that teenagers absorb from watching shows like Friends," he write. "For example: the ideal weight for full-grown women is between 95 and 98 pounds. Or this one: the best route to true romantic fulfillment is to seduce your closest buddy's girlfriend. … The most powerful lesson about sex that TV teaches, of course, is that everyone's having more of it than you are—and they're having it with more attractive partners than you can ever hope to meet."
TV as "sex-ed night school" may be like "panning for gold in the Love Canal," Kirn says. "Sure, you might, just might, come up with something, but will the side effects be worth it?"
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