Interventions Aimed at Impulsivity May Delay Adolescent Sexual Activity

Sexual activity usually starts during adolescence, a time when young people begin to explore and experiment with new things and seek to clarify their identities. Teenagers who have sex are more likely to engage in risky sexual practices than adults. In particular, teens have more unprotected sex and more sexual partners than older individuals, which puts them in a higher risk category for negative outcomes such as unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Understanding the motivating factors that lead to early sexual risk taking can help shape preventions designed to address this issue in young people.

Atika Khurana of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania recently led a study that examined certain elements that might predict sexual activity in adolescents. In the study, Khurana looked at factors including early pubertal maturation, impulsivity, delaying rewards, and sensation seeking. The participants consisted of 347 urban-dwelling adolescents of differing races from slightly varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Khurana evaluated them at three separate times over one year, looking specifically at working memory, maturity, and sexual activity. The results revealed that participants with increased levels of working memory were less likely to engage in early sexual activity. Further, the teens with impaired working memory that affected delaying rewards and impulse control had a high likelihood of beginning sexual activity at an early age.

One factor that was predicted to facilitate early sexual activity, namely sensation seeking, did not seem to have the expected effect. But Khurana did find that the black participants and teens from low socioeconomic environments were more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors than the other participants. When impulsivity and impaired working memory were included in the analysis, the risk increased even further. Contrary to some existing evidence, early puberty onset was not a risk factor for sexual activity, but rather acted as a buffer against sexual risk taking. This was especially evident in the female participants. Khurana believes that the early maturation of girls could improve their working memory and thus provide them with an increased ability to control their impulses, leading to less risk taking overall. Although the sample size in this study was relatively small, the results demonstrate that interventions designed to address impulsivity and working memory may be ideal for teens that are vulnerable to early sexual risk-taking behaviors. “Interventions that can be delivered at a young age and more universally, without any risk of stigmatizing the recipients, may have greater chances of success,” Khurana said.

Khurana, Atika, Daniel Romer, Laura M. Betancourt, Nancy L. Brodsky, Joan M. Giannetta, and Hallam Hurt. Early adolescent sexual debut: The mediating role of working memory ability, sensation seeking, and impulsivity. Developmental Psychology48.5 (2012): 1416-428. Print.

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  • egon

    October 26th, 2012 at 11:16 PM

    early teens engaging in sexual activity can lead to undesired experiences later is not a mentally healthy thing to do.and this calls for intervention.but I just have a question whether these intervention techniques mentioned here have any drawback of their own?do we not have any other route to help our teens?reduction in the sexualization of the media would be a good start.

  • Simon

    October 27th, 2012 at 6:39 AM

    I only have a tiny problem with this because my nature aren’t all teens and adolescents impulsive by nature? And how do you have some kind of program that clearly goes against the very essence of who they are at this point in their lives? Another problem that I have is that so you teach them to delay gratification, okay that’s good. But we also need to teach them when you do decide to give in there are ways to be a little safer than they may natiurally choose to be. Teach them about safe sex and the ramifications of unsafe sex, and I honestly think that this will have the greatest long term impact.

  • Cate

    October 27th, 2012 at 8:42 AM

    Did I miss something on working memory?
    Not really sure I know exactly what that is

  • damon

    October 27th, 2012 at 9:20 AM

    Teachers,parents and counselors may try all they want but the group that has the largest influence on youngsters is their peer group.So if we can have student volunteers who would spread the message that would be something awesome.

  • C White

    October 27th, 2012 at 11:31 AM

    teens are not gonna stop exploring their sexual is just not possible to stop them from doing so.parents cant keep an eye 24X7 and its not really practical to have total supervision over everything the teen does.I think what is really needed is in fact awareness about safe sex practices and an encouragement to follow such practices.

    The bottom line in fact is to stop the spread and increase in STDs and unwanted pregnancies and all that can come with it.So this way has clearer and much more workable options than trying to get the teens to stay away,something that has til now proven impossible.

  • emmett s

    October 27th, 2012 at 10:11 PM

    most probable reason is peer pressure and exposure to over sexualized media that leads to teens getting sexually active well before they are mentally ready. In fact there are a lot of teens out there who do it only because they don want to be left behind or be ridiculed by their peers!sad but true.

  • KJP

    October 28th, 2012 at 4:56 AM

    Any kind of intervention is good but. . . you have to remember who we are talking about here. Don’t you remember being a teenager and wanting to experiment and have fun with your sexuality? I mean, kids will be kids and they want to experiment and explore. Getting them to delay sex until they are emotionally and mentally ready to deal with it would be great, but I think that sometimes that battle is too huge to overcome.

  • nyla

    October 28th, 2012 at 5:15 AM

    they are young,they are inquisitive and are excited about new things.there isn’t much that can be done to pull them away from it.but what can be done is to educate them of the dangers and prepare them to be would not be weird to take your teenage son out and buy him a condom.that is far better than having him getting into trouble because he didn’t use one!

  • Ron Mckenzie

    October 28th, 2012 at 12:11 PM

    They say prevention is better than cure.So we need to prevent it rather than having to find ways to cure.What we must know,however,is that the problem here is unsafe practices not their sexual activity in itself,and that is what needs some rework.It would not get us any results if we work in DELAYING their sexual activity,that gets too judgmental and also sometimes becomes a question of personal choice.

  • Andy

    October 28th, 2012 at 10:58 PM

    So what this study is suggesting is that kids who have sex are dumb and are underdeveloped compared to their peers who pledge abstinence? That has to be the most weird thing I have read in quite some time now!

  • Tiarra

    October 29th, 2012 at 4:04 AM

    So there are so many adults who are just as impulsive in their thinking as there are kids who do it.

    How are we going to address this issue when kids see so many adults behaving poorly and they are simmply modeling that behavior?

  • caroline

    October 29th, 2012 at 11:00 AM

    We have to really start paying better attention to the foods that we are feeding our kids, which I think is one of the prime suspects that currently leads to earlier pubetal age and poor decisions and nutrition for our children. There is no other answer than this. You can give them all the speeches and talks that you want, but when these overactive hormones kick into high gear with these kids who are not mature enough to handle them then we have a big problem. I think that a large part of the blame lies with the foods that they eat and the hormones that come as a part of that package deal. If we take away so much of the junk then I think that you will find that many of these problems that we are currently facing will be gone.

  • Lewis

    October 29th, 2012 at 1:49 PM

    Impulsivity coupled with young blood is not a bad thing at all.But under certain circumstances it can lead youngsters into doing things they may regret later on.One such thing is unprotected sex and other risky practices.

    There is absolutely no use in trying to stop them at the peak of their impulsivity.But targeting them and working continuously BEFORE the moment arrives…well that is preparation for it and the right preparation I would say!

  • reese

    October 29th, 2012 at 11:36 PM

    Peer pressure and the desire to ‘fit in’ have to be the biggest factors for the sexual activity in teens. I these factors can be tackled there is much hope. They need to be shown that abstinence is not uncool and that they are not losers of they do not follow others around them. This ain’t going to happen overnight but we need to make a start.

    We could have programs on schools where abstinence is promoted and early sexual activity discouraged. Coupled with lesson on safe sex practices this could take us a long way.

  • Clarke

    October 30th, 2012 at 4:12 AM

    So I would love to see the school that allows you to walk in and encourage early onset pubescent girls to engage in more masturbation. That would be a sight to see, because I am not sure that there is any school district in the United States open minded enough to support that stance!

  • Sid

    October 30th, 2012 at 4:31 AM

    You are right,reese.Peer pressure plays a big role in this.And those that succumb to it are the ones most vulnerable and immature if you ask me.Not to generalize but that is the trend.No matter how many lessons are given on safe sex and/or abstinence,a few just don’t get it.Its not their mistake but that’s just how they are.We’re all different and will always be!

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