Young People, Media and Personal Relationships

This report is based on a research project entitled 'Young People, Media and Personal Relationships', which was conducted by the authors between June 2001 and July 2003. The project was funded by the Advertising Standards Authority, the British Board of Film Classification, the BBC, the Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Independent Television Commission.

The project entailed a comprehensive review of the research literature (published separately by the BSC); an extensive qualitative study, involving interviews and other fieldwork activities with children and parents; and a questionnaire survey. In addition to this report, we are also publishing a book based on the research which gives a more detailed analysis of the qualitative study: Young People, Sex and the Media by David Buckingham and Sara Bragg (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

Qualitative findings

1. Whether or not they choose to do so, children frequently encounter sexual material in the media. The children in our sample were encountering such material not just in ‘adult’ television programming, but also in children’s programmes, movies, advertising, pop music, magazines and newspapers, and on the internet. However, relatively little of this material contained ‘explicit’ representations of sexual activity.

2. The material children do encounter is quite diverse in terms of the ‘messages’ it is seen to contain. The children sometimes found it difficult to identify he ‘messages’ about sex and relationships that were contained in this material; the messages they did identify were by no means uniform or always straightforward. The modern media offer mixed messages and often explicitly require consumers to make up their own minds about sexual issues.

3. Children value the media as a source of information relative to other sources, such as parents or the school. The children were generally very critical of the sex education they received in school, and many also found it embarrassing to be taught about such matters by their parents. They preferred media such as teenage magazines and soap operas on the grounds that they were often more informative, less embarrassing to use and more attuned to their needs and concerns.

4. Nevertheless, children do not necessarily trust what they find in the media: they are ‘literate’, and often highly critical, consumers. Children are not the naive or incompetent consumers they are frequently assumed to be. They use a range of critical skills and perspectives when interpreting sexual content; this develops both with age and with their experience of media.

5. Children (and parents) are aware of media regulation, but reserve the right to make their own judgements. All the children and parents in our research were aware of regulatory systems such as the Watershed and film classification, and used these as one source of information when choosing what to watch. However, children often resisted or rejected parents’ attempts to decide on their behalf, and most parents were inclined to avoid an authoritarian approach, preferring to negotiate with their children over what they should see.

6. Children do learn about sex and relationships from the media, but this is not a straightforward or reliable process. The children often rejected overt attempts on the part of the media to teach them about sexual matters, and they were sceptical about some of the advice they were offered. e.g. in problem pages or talk shows). They were particularly resistant to the use of drama to convey pre-defined moral messages.

7. Younger children do not necessarily always understand sexual references or connotations. Younger children’s partial knowledge means that they often ignore or misinterpret references to sexual matters, particularly where these are in the form of comic innuendo or ‘suggestion’ (as in the case of music videos). Younger children are also less aware of the cultural conventions through which sex is signified in the media.

8. Morality is a key concern in children’s interpretations of, and debates about, the media. The children made judgements about sex, not in the abstract but in the context of ‘love and relationships’. They debated at length the motivations that led characters to engage in sex and the consequences of their behaviour for others, and they placed a strong emphasis on the need for trust, fidelity and mutual respect.

9. There were some striking differences between boys and girls – at least in how gender was ‘performed’ in relation to the media. Girls were more ready to express sexual desire in relation to media images than boys, for whom such responses may have seemed ‘politically incorrect’. Boys’ responses to media images of men were often characterised by a form of insecurity or ‘homosexual panic’, which was sometimes reinforced by directly homophobic strategies on the part of parents.

10. The influence of the media depends heavily upon the contexts of use, particularly in the family. Children use media consumption as an opportunity to rehearse or police gendered identities; different styles of parenting also result in very different responses to sexual material, and very different ways of coming to terms with it. The media do not have an autonomous ability either to sexually corrupt children or to sexually liberate them.

Survey findings

1. The media as a source of sexual learning Young people are often enthusiastic about the media as a source of sexual learning. Over two-thirds agree that they are useful or very useful as a ‘way to find out about love, sex and relationships’ and that magazines in particular give useful information on these issues. Fifty four per cent agreed that the media ‘try to help young people make up their own minds about sex’ and 58% that the media ‘try to help young people understand the difference between right and wrong’, with only around a quarter disagreeing. There was less support among young people for the hypothesis that the media encourage young people to have sex too young: only 25% agreed. The media are now on a par with mothers as a ‘useful’ source of information. Sixty six per cent stated that mothers are useful or very useful for finding out about sex.

In this survey only sex education lessons at school scored more highly: 80% stated that they were useful or very useful. However, as other surveys have consistently suggested, young people continue to have difficulty talking to fathers about issues related to love, sex and relationships: 34% found their fathers useful, the same rating given to ‘posters and advertisements’.

Young people feel that their parents underestimate their maturity and their existing or potential need for sexual information. Sixty nine per cent of 12 and 14-year-olds agreed that they know more about sex than their parents think they do. Ninety per cent also disagreed that they were too young to learn about sex.

2. Access to sexual content

Despite some trends towards individualised viewing as they grow older, the majority of young people still consume media material in the company of others. While it would appear from children’s perceptions that parents are not unduly concerned about regulating their children’s viewing or limiting their viewing of sexual material on television, 50% of young people stated that parents had talked to them about these issues in relation to something they were watching together on television. Just over half of them (52%) welcomed such discussions. However, in general, 73% of 12 and 14-yearolds state that they do not like to see programmes or videos containing sex when they are with their mothers; 65% feel the same about viewing with their fathers.

There is ample evidence not only that children can get access to sexual material, but also that they actively seek it out. Many children claim to be able to subvert parental viewing rules. A significant minority of 10-year-olds, and a majority of 12 to 14-year-olds, appear positively to enjoy adult-oriented programmes (although these may or may not contain sexual content).

3. Judgements about sexual content in the media.

Young people are also able to make judgements about what they do and do not want to watch on television. Of the two- thirds of respondents who had seen a programme or video that had ‘too much’ about sex in it, 64% had carried on watching, while the remainder (36%) had chosen to stop. As they grow older, young people appear to become less inclined to reject or be shocked by particular forms of sexual representation in the media. They are also more likely to hold that there should be more information about lesbian and gay relationships in the media.

Gender and age are the most significant predictors of attitudes and behaviours in relation to the media. Despite popular myths, social class does not appear from our survey to be a relevant factor either in respect of young people’s opinions on these issues or in relation to the degree of parental regulation, although it does impact on children’s access to the internet.


Preface and acknowledgements 5

Summary of key findings 7

Introduction 11

Methodology 17


1 Learning about sex and relationships 25

2 Gender and sexuality 31

3 Bodies on display: pin-ups, porn and pop 37

4 Confessions: talk shows, problem pages and celebrity gossip 45

5 Television drama 53

6 Family viewing 61

7 Regulation 67

8 Conclusions 73


9 Methodology 81

10 Key findings 83

11 Discussion 85


1 Profile of the respondents 98

2 Questionnaire 103

3 Summary of television extracts and other material used 110

in the qualitative research

4 References 112

5 Researchers’ credits 115

6 Advertising Standards Authority 116

7 British Board of Film Classification 117

8 British Broadcasting Corporation 118

9 Broadcasting Standards Commission 119

10 Independent Television Commission 120

Author's links:

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