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21 November 2002
Teen Sex Linked To Early Friendships
by George Atkinson

The nature of preteen friendships can play a key role in determining whether or not a child will engage in sexual activity early in adolescence, a new study suggests.

For example, researchers found that boys who had mostly female friends when they were preteens were more likely to have had sex by age 16 than were other boys. However, the same wasn't true for girls who as preteens had mostly male friends.

Results also showed that preteens with friends in higher grades were more likely to have sex in early adolescence. Going steady in early adolescence was also linked to having sex as a young teen.

"Social networking at ages 11 and 12 is powerfully predictive of sexual initiation between early and middle adolescence," said Elizabeth Cooksey, a study co-author and an associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

She and her colleagues also found that having a steady boyfriend or girlfriend as a young teenager significantly increased the odds of having sex.

The researchers define early adolescence as ages 13 and 14 and middle adolescence as ages 15 and 16.

Cooksey and her colleagues also found that one out of three of the teens in the study had had sex by age 16. Of these children, one in eight said they had had sex before ever going out on a date.

Additionally, there was a three-fold jump in reported sexual experience - from 10 percent to 34 percent - between early adolescence and middle adolescence.

"There are a couple of things that parents of young adolescents can watch out for, such as a child having more friends in higher grades or dating someone on a steady basis," Cooksey said.

The research appears in a recent issue of the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. Cooksey co-authored the study with Frank Mott, a senior research scientist with Ohio State's Center for Human Resource Research, and Stephanie Neubauer, a former research assistant at the center.

The researchers used data on 1,678 children who had participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY). The NLSY is an ongoing survey that collects information from youth every two years on a variety of topics.

The children in the current study were 11 or 12 years old in 1990, 1992 or 1994. Researchers followed the youth until they reached age 15 or 16. All of the teens included in the study were also born to relatively young mothers (under the age of 26.)

Ten percent of the youth surveyed admitted that they were sexually experienced by age 13 or 14. But by the time these teens reached middle adolescence, more than one-third (34 percent) reported that they had had sex. Nearly half (45 percent) of the black children in the study said that they had had sex by age 15 or 16.

Of the 564 children who reported having sex by age 15 or 16, half said that they had started dating prior to having sex. Gender and race seemed to play a role here: Males were more likely than females (59 percent vs. 42 percent) and non-blacks were more likely than blacks (58 vs. 28 percent) to have dated prior to having sex.

"Many people assume that a teenager will progress from casual dating to going to steady and then to having sex," Cooksey said. "There are cases where that assumption is wrong. Our results suggest that a significant minority of youth are having sex outside of a relationship."

But the researchers weren't exactly certain how different groups of youth defined their relationships.

"We need to know a lot more about dating behaviors in this age bracket," Cooksey said. "We're not sure how much sexual activity is really taking place outside of a relationship, nor do we know how the term 'dating' differs among racial groups."

Only three in 10 youth reported that they had dated during early adolescence. Of those who did, six in 10 reported going steady.

"A 'steady' relationship correlates with early sexual behavior, regardless of how often a teenager goes on dates," Cooksey said. "So frequent dating - as opposed to going steady - may be more innocuous than going steady when it comes to initiating sexual behavior."

The researchers also found that sexually inexperienced 15 and 16-year-olds were much more likely to have had same-sex and same-grade friends as preteens than were sexually experienced 15 and 16-year-olds.

As preteens, boys with mostly female friends were more likely to have started dating in early adolescence and to have had sex by middle adolescence than were boys with mostly male friends. However, the reverse was true with preteen girls who had mostly male friends. These girls were less likely than girls with mostly female friends to have had sex.

"This may seem counterintuitive until you consider that preteen girls who hang out mostly with boys may be the more active, sports-oriented girls traditionally called tomboys," Cooksey said. "Other research shows a higher age for sexual behavior in adolescent females who participate in athletics."

Preteens with a disproportionately high number of friends in higher grades were more likely to engage in sexual activity as young teenagers.

"Friendship patterns may be indicative of other events in the child's life," Cooksey said. "For example, a higher proportion of youth who reported having friends in higher grades had been held back at least two grades."

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