updated 9/16/2011 11:20:55 AM ET 2011-09-16T15:20:55

Popular song lyrics have become much more sexualized in the last decade, says a new study by researchers at the nation's largest religious university, Brigham Young University.

"We're concerned that we are creating a cultural norm and that norm is really leading young men to view women and their bodies as objects, almost in a dehumanizing fashion," said Cougar Hall, a school health educator at BYU in Provo, Utah. The school is owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). "We're teaching young girls that their value to the world is not between their ears but in their breasts and butts."

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Since the average young person listens to two-and-a-half hours of music each day, the researchers suspect that a surge in explicit lyrics is influencing their attitudes about sex. They suggest that music may be contributing to teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases among youth and willingness to have sex at a young age.

The findings don't suggest that sex is bad, that music should be censored or that adolescents should avoid mutually satisfying relationships, insist the researchers. Instead, the study draws attention to the need for adults to talk with kids about the power media holds over them.

And, in addition to worrying about screen time, parents might want to start paying attention to the playlists on their kids' iPods.

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"We need to have discussions with both boys and girls about what their value is and what they can contribute," Hall added. "That's where we are going to teach girls that they're worth much more than just looking at and to teach boys that girls aren't objects."

In 2004, just 18 percent of kids aged 8 to 18 owned MP3 players. By 2009, the number was up to 76 percent, found a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. And even though parents often set limits on the amount of time their kids can spend watching TV, playing video games and surfing the Internet, just 10 percent of youth in the study reported having restrictions on the amount of music they listened to.

To get a long-term perspective on how music might be affecting the beliefs and behaviors of young people, Hall and colleagues looked at the "Billboard Hot 100" most popular year-end songs from 1959, '69, '79, '89, '99 and 2009. That gave them six decades and 600 songs to work with.

Looking only at the lyrics, the researchers coded each song for references to sexual topics. Categories included things like sexual readiness, sexual activity, manual sexual simulation, and experiences of excitement, sexual plateau or climax.

The researchers also took note of lyrics suggesting that "a person's value comes only from his or her sexual appeal" or that "a person is held to a standard of beauty equating physical attractiveness with being sexy," among other messages.

In 2009, three times as many top songs contained sexual references compared to all the decades before it, the researchers reported in the journal Sexuality and Culture. Overall, male musicians were more than twice as likely to sing sex-filled songs compared to female artists.

The study is the first to demonstrate for music what other studies have found about TV-watching and what most experts have long suspected, said Jane Brown, an expert on the effects of media on adolescence at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

"We all think, 'Oh my goodness, music has gotten so much sexier and raunchier,' and basically that's what they're showing," Brown said. "We really haven't had that evidence, and this brings us right up to date on how lyrics have changed over time."

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned, Brown said. Adolescents who are interested in sex don't just gravitate toward sexier media, she said. Several studies have suggested that, for that age group, exposure to lots of sexually degrading media also influences their sexual behaviors and views of their own sexuality.

Long-term research, for example, has shown that exposure to sexual references in media predicts teen behavior more than previous attitudes and experiences do. One of Brown's studies found that adolescents with the heaviest levels of exposure to sexual media between the ages of 12 and 14 were more than twice as likely to have sexual intercourse between ages 14 and 16.

Teens tend to make decisions about sex based on what they think their peers are doing, studies show. But they often overestimate what is normal, and what they see in the media is a major reason why.

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Not all experts are convinced that music is the reason or that teens are making certain sexual decisions, though. Other research, has shown that teens tend to be more sexually active when they spend more time at home without parental monitoring, said Yvonne Fulbright, a sexuality education expert, author and TV personality.

She also raised questions about the values-based coding system that the researchers used in this study, and she pointed out that they work at an institution with a religious foundation that may have biased their work.

In her own experience as a teen in the early 90s, Fulbright added, she remembers enjoying raciness and sexual innuendo in music, but finds it hard to believe that those songs had much of an influence on her decisions about how to behave and express herself.

"I would be surprised to find anybody in my generation who would claim a song had that huge of an impact on their sexual development and explorations," she said.

"The impact of sexualized media is way more complicated than that, and the conclusions that the researchers come to leave out the importance of significant others in a youth's life that have more power over them than the media and music industry. So, I feel like their conclusions are a bit of a stretch."

What experts on both sides of the issue agree on is that parents can and should play a big role in helping prepare their kids to make better decisions. Studies show that kids actually want their parents to be their primary resource on sex, Fulbright said. And they want to know how their parents feel about the issues involved.

When it comes to the influence of music, Brown said, the best thing parents can do is to listen to what their kids are listening to and talk to them about what they hear. Studies show that adding media-literacy to school curriculum can also make an impact on kids' attitudes.

Not all references to sex in songs are negative, Brown added. Plenty of music offers healthy perspectives on love and relationships, and parents can help steer their kids toward those bands. The key is to listen.

"I think music is kind of a neglected medium in terms of its power for adolescents," Brown said. "It is the air they breathe. The kind of music they listen to identifies what kind of person they are and what kind of people they want to hang out with. And this kind of study helps remind us that much of the content they may be listening to may not hold the kind of sexual values that many parents would want their children to have."

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