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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