Editor's note: Melissa Henson is the director of communications and public education for the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment.
(CNN) -- Kids having sex on prime time broadcast TV? Must be sweeps month.
It's so predictable, it's almost laughable. Almost. That is, it would be if it weren't for the fact that there are real-world consequences for these brazen, ratings-boosting publicity ploys.
Fox's soapy, teen-targeted "Glee" tried to boost sagging ratings this week by showing not one, but two teen couples having sex for the first time -- one gay, the other straight. Show co-creator Ryan Murphy and the folks over at "Glee" are spinning this as a "teachable moment" for teens and their parents, an opportunity for dialogue about safe sex and responsible choices. The problem is Ryan Murphy wants to have his cake and eat it, too.
Hollywood loves to defend teen sex story lines by insisting, "Kids are having sex! We're reflecting the real world!" But the truth is much more sobering and complicated.
Yes, there are and always have been sexually active teens, but never before have depictions of premarital teen sex been so widespread in the media. Today, you are more likely to see sexualized teens than adults in sexual situations. By presenting teen sex as common, the media marginalizes teens who choose to remain abstinent while increasing the pressure teens are already feeling to become sexually active.
Television is a "sexual super peer," according to Jane Brown, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina. The phrase "peer pressure" is used to describe the influence a peer group can exert on a teen's decisions. Television amplifies that peer pressure by making the entire realm of television, and all the characters in it, part of the teen's peer group.
When television portrays attractive, popular teenage characters as sexually active, it sends a powerful message to young viewers that there is an expectation that they, too, should be sexually active and, in fact, there might be something wrong with them, if they aren't.
Teens are also aware that television influences their behavior. According to one survey, a third of youths age 12 and older say the media encourages them to have sex by making it seem like "everybody does it." And why shouldn't they get that impression?
Beyond making teen sex the norm, researchers have found heavy television viewing to be predictive of positive attitudes toward "recreational" or casual sex and negative attitudes toward remaining a virgin. Studies have also found the more a teenager identifies with the characters they see on prime time TV shows, the more likely they are to be sexually experienced and to expect higher levels of sexual activity among their peers.
At least half a dozen studies in the past few years have documented a strong correlation between exposure to adult media content as children and the early onset of sexual activity among teens. One study even found that viewing of sexual media content was predictive of teen pregnancy.
If that isn't enough, why exactly do parents and teens need to sit down and watch a TV show that glamorizes teen sex in order to have a conversation about it? Let's hope most parents pass on Hollywood's attempt to help them out with the visuals and simply have an honest conversation with their teenagers.
If history is a predictor of future behavior, we can expect this trend to continue. A season or two into Murphy's show "Nip/Tuck" on the FX network, he was interviewed for a Bravo network documentary about breaking sexual taboos on television. Murphy stated, "It's tough to get that sexual point of view across on television. Hopefully I have made it possible for somebody on broadcast television to do a rear-entry scene in three years. Maybe that will be my legacy."
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the self-styled sex-ed teacher to America's teens. The worst thing parents can do is step aside and let Hollywood do the teaching.
The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Melissa Henson.