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Studies shed light on youth sex and drinking
Parents and teens don’t see eye to eye
Researchers looking into early sexual behavior and attitudes about sex among youths have found that alcohol use does play a role in sexual initiation. They also have found that children have different attitudes about sexual behavior even as young as preteens.
"The bottom line is we don’t think parents are doing a very good job of explaining their expectations to kids," says Nicholas Long, PhD, professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.
"They’re not explaining their standards and beliefs on sexual issues, and it’s going to be harder to relate their values regarding sexual behavior later on," he says.
Long’s study found that fourth- and fifth-graders had different ideas about acceptable sexual behavior and dating than did their parents. Also, the study found that preteens are less concerned about AIDS and teen pregnancy than are their parents, he says.
Another study found that alcohol use was more consistently related to early initiation of sexual activity and the number of sexual partners than it was to condom use among youth in three high-risk groups. These groups included females in inner-city housing developments, males in detention facilities, and young men who have sex with men (MSM) in Midwestern gay and bisexual youth groups, says Rick Zimmerman, PhD, professor of communication at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
"Alcohol use was least in the adolescent females in inner-city housing developments," he notes. "Marijuana use was the next most prevalent substance we looked at in all three groups, and it was at least as prevalent as alcohol use in each of them."
The study offered some clues as to interventions that might work with young people, and one potential intervention design would be to target younger adolescents, between ages 10 and 14, for education that might lead to a delay in alcohol use, Zimmerman says.
"If we can delay initiation of drinking or excessive drinking, we may be able to delay sexual activity, so that’s one of the most important implications," he adds.
"Beyond that, I think it’s probably still useful — even though the data are mixed for adolescents who are both using alcohol and engaging in sexual behavior — to encourage ways for the adolescent to separate the two behaviors." For example, if a youth is going to drink and already is having sex, then the youth could hang out with friends to drink one night and have sex with a sexual partner on a night when there is no drinking, suggests Zimmerman.
"The good news is that at least for many of the adolescents in these groups we’ve been looking at, the convergence of alcohol use and sexual behavior is not that regular," he says. "The vast majority of times they were having sex, they were not under the influence of alcohol."
On the other hand, a majority of the detention center population said they had sex when they were under the influence of marijuana, adds Zimmerman. "But across these groups, when they were having sex, they were not drinking, and that’s a potentially promising sign."
The preteens and parents’ attitudes study was part of a larger project designed to look at the effectiveness of interventions to reduce risky sexual behavior among adolescents and young adults. Long’s portion of the research focused on children, ages 9 to 12, and their parents.
Specifically, investigators and staff worked with parents of these preteens in interventions designed to make them feel more comfortable talking about sex with their children and teaching them strategies to become sex educators, Long says.
The families, all of whom were African-American, were provided one of three different interventions, including a full intervention of five sessions of 2.5 hours each; a single 2.5 hour presentation with the same material, but without role playing and group discussions; and a comparison group that had a 2.5 hour presentation on various health issues, but not on sexual edu-cation, Long says.
Investigators found that 79% of the preteen boys thought it was OK to have a girlfriend at their age, and 17% of the parents thought it was OK. Among preteen girls, 55% thought having a boyfriend was OK, and 3% of their parents agreed, Long says.
"The other issue was the seriousness of AIDS and the difference between kids and parents and perception," Long says. "For example, 97% of the parents of boys thought AIDS was a serious problem, and 94% of the boys thought so."
Among families with preteen girls, 99% of the parents thought AIDS was a serious problem, while 93% of the girls thought it was a serious problem, Long adds.