The term “hook up” is one modern way individuals, especially young people, refer to casual-sex encounters. Teenagers who are sexually active, but not in romantic relationships, may “hook up” with other teens. But are these encounters damaging to adolescents’ sense of well-being? Research has suggested that teens who date are more likely to experience stress, depression, and emotional conflict than those who do not. However, the level of depression and stress teens experience in committed relationships has not been compared to the depression and stress in teens who “hook up.”
To address this void in research, Jane Mendle, of the Department of Human Development at Cornell University in New York, conducted a study that compared the emotional and psychological well-being of more than 1,500 pairs of siblings ranging in age from 13 to 18. She gauged whether the siblings were romantically involved with another person, engaging in sexual activity with that person, or whether they were sexually active with nonromantic partners. She found that although the teens in committed relationships did have moderately higher levels of depression than those who were single, the teens who participated in “hook-ups” had the highest levels of emotional distress and depression. This was especially pronounced in teens under the age of 15.
Mendle believes that one of the reasons for this finding could be the fact “hook-ups” often involve partners who used to date, or who may want to date each other in the future. In this sense, one of the participants may be more emotionally invested in the encounter than the other. The subsequent dismissal of a romantic relationship may bring on feelings of sadness, disappointment, and even jealousy. The findings in this study are rather robust because they are based on sibling pairs. However, this dynamic can also limit the results, and further family history should be gathered in future work. Additionally, romantic relationships, as defined by the participants, may not necessarily involve sexual intercourse but may include other intimate acts. This should also be explored in future research. “Continued exploration of how the transition to sexual maturity may be moderated by contextual factors can help clarify the particular developmental challenges and stressors of adolescence,” Mendle said.
Mendle, J., Ferrero, J., Moore, S. R., Harden, K. P. (2012). Depression and adolescent sexual activity in romantic and nonromantic relational contexts: A genetically-informative sibling comparison. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029816
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