Throughout the study, participants reported how often they were listening to 16 artists chosen by the study's authors based on their popularity. In every case – across racial and gender lines, and after accounting for factors like a heightened interest in sex or more permissive parents – increased exposure to sexually degrading lyrics (though not merely sexual ones) led to increased sexual activity.
Parents and psychologists have long worried about the harm not only of music, but also of TV, movies, and video games. After the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, a few groups decried the violence depicted by rock singer Marilyn Manson's lyrics. Some went so far as to blame the singer for the attacks. More recently, the governor of Illinois tried unsuccessfully to ban sales of violent video games to minors.
Free-speech proponents have reacted angrily to suggestions of censorship, sometimes citing the fact that all individuals process information differently and can normally distinguish between what they're watching or listening to and their own behavior.
But more sophisticated studies, like the one published by RAND, are starting to tease out which aspects of media affect kids, and in what ways.
"This uses a more precise methodology than previous studies have, particularly around the issue of content," says Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Harvard University. "We as a society have lulled ourselves into thinking that if it's entertainment it doesn't affect us. There's this artificial dichotomy we've drawn between education and entertainment – education is at school, and then kids turn their brains off when they go home and listen to misogynistic lyrics."
Still, Dr. Rich and others agree that censorship – whether at home or on a social level – is a losing game. Rather than ban music, they say, parents should be aware of what their kids are listening to and willing to have conversations that put it in context.