When Friends talk, teens listen

USA Today

One episode of ‘Friends’ “might have taught teenagers more about risky sex than hours of adult preaching, and reached far more kids than any school’s sex education program, suggests a survey. “TV gets lambasted all the time for doing bad things, but this suggests it has just as much potential to do good,” says survey leader Rebecca Collins, a RAND senior behavioural scientist. Her study focused on the episode when Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) told Ross (David Schwimmer) that she was pregnant, even though they had used a condom. The show mentioned twice that condoms are 97 per cent effective. Some 1.67 million kids between the ages of 12 and 17 saw the episode when it aired on October 11, 2001, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Collins surveyed 506 frequent viewers of ‘Friends’, ages 12 to 17, within a few weeks of the episode and then six months later. Her report in ‘Pediatrics’ shows that many got the “safe sex” facts. About two-thirds of viewers recalled how condom failure had resulted in pregnancy. Most who saw the show interpreted its message as “lots of times, condoms don’t prevent pregnancy.” Roughly a third even remembered the success rate for condoms.

Watching with an adult — about two out of five did — led to clearer recall of how effective condoms are, and talking to an adult about the show increased knowledge even more. Parents may have reinforced what teens saw on TV, says Collins. “It’s so much easier to get to kids with stories that happen to characters they care about,” she says.