Why teens have sex early: Family and neighborhood connections matter most

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Teens who grow up in close-knit families and neighborhoods are less likely to have sex at a young age, according to a new study by UC San Francisco.

On the other hand, the influence of schools on teens’ sexual behavior is much smaller.

These findings could help educators and public health officials better direct resources to prevent unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and other negative outcomes from early sexual activity.

The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, surveyed 4,001 adolescents from 751 neighborhoods and 115 schools in Alabama, California, and Texas.

Researchers asked these teens, their families, and their teachers about the quality of their relationships at home, school, and in their neighborhoods.

The questions focused on how often families and neighbors spent time together and helped one another, and how much students trusted each other and their teachers.

The results were clear: family and neighborhood connections play a significant role in whether teens have sex by 10th grade.

Teens whose parents restricted their dating were 55% less likely to have sex by 10th grade. Similarly, kids who spent less time alone at home were 8% less likely, and those from cohesive families were 7% less likely to have sex by 10th grade.

Teens from close-knit neighborhoods were 10% less likely to have early sex, while those in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods or areas with lower educational levels were 24% and 23% more likely, respectively.

Dr. Camila Cribb Fabersunne, the lead author of the study and a UCSF pediatrician, emphasized the importance of family and neighborhood bonds.

“Our results echo other studies’ findings on the importance of families and neighborhoods in protecting youth from risky behaviors,” she said. “Feeling connected to one’s local community can mitigate sexually risky behaviors.”

Tracy Richmond, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and senior author of the study, added, “Parents should not underestimate the impact they can have on their children. Simple parenting strategies like limiting dating can make a big difference in the timing of their child’s first sexual encounter, which in turn can influence their child’s overall health and well-being.”

Dr. Cribb Fabersunne also suggested that public health officials and educators should invest more in family and neighborhood strategies rather than just school-based programs. This could include creating community-based health centers for youth and supporting parents in having conversations with their children about sexual behavior.

“It’s about investing in neighborhoods, such as adding greenspace, safety features, and transit, so parents can be more available to their kids,” she said. “Isolation and premature independence lead children to risky behavior, and that happens when we disenfranchise low-income neighborhoods.”

About 23% of U.S. teens have sex by 10th grade, with early sexual activity being more common among males and Black and Latinx youth. Research shows that early sexual activity is associated with higher risks of sexually transmitted infections, unplanned pregnancies, and depression.

This study is the first to examine how children’s social connections at home, school, and in neighborhoods simultaneously affect their sexual behavior. Dr. Cribb Fabersunne described these social connections as “social capital,” likening it to a currency maintained through trust, reciprocity, and cooperation.

“To encourage healthy sexual behavior, we need to build up social capital for kids in the places where it will be most effective,” she said.

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