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Study: Teens pay attention to parental advice on sex

Parental talks with teens about sex, starting before they have it, make teens more likely to wait and to use protection when they do have sex.

By Stephen Feller
Study: Teens pay attention to parental advice on sex
Researchers said parental advice is important, as is the way it is presented. Lecturing teenagers about not having sex is not as effective as having a conversation about hypothetical situations and ways to handle them, they said. Photo by bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock

RALEIGH, N.C., Nov. 4 (UPI) -- Teenagers are more likely to wait to have sex, and more likely to use birth control and condoms when they do, if their parents talk to them about sex before they start having it, according to a new study.

Researchers at North Carolina State University reviewed studies conducted during the last 30 years which showed a small, though positive, effect of parental talks on teens safe sex practices.

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Although many parents find talking to their kids about sex, the researchers write in the study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, advice from parents is one of many voices teens hear on the topic but that advice often has a greater effect than expected.

"Communicating about sex can be uncomfortable for both parents and teens, but these conversations are a critical component of helping teens make safe and healthy decisions," Laura Widman, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, told HealthDay. "What parents say to their kids about sex matters."

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The researchers culled data from 52 studies conducted in the last 30 years involving 25,314 adolescents with a mean age of 15.2 years. The studies included research on whether teens spoke with their mother or father and the topics covered in conversations, with most studies aiming to measure the effects of sex talks to predict later use of condoms or other contraceptives.

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Teenagers who had sex talks with their parents were about 10 percent more likely to use contraceptives than those who did not, with the effect stronger in girls than boys. Talks with mothers were found to be significantly more effective than talks with fathers, and the researchers found that communication about sex with fathers was not significantly linked with safer sex practices.

The focus of researchers on safe sex when reviewing the studies differs from the focus of many studies and conversations about teaching teenagers about sex, write researchers from New York University in an accompanying editorial published in JAMA Pediatrics.

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"Extensive scientific literature suggests that parents play an important role in shaping sexual behavior among adolescents," the researchers wrote. "However, there is a tendency in this research to prioritize delaying adolescent sexual debut, with less attention devoted to correct and consistent condom and contraceptive use."

Because of this, the researchers suggest the effect of parents on their teenagers' sex lives may be underestimated because only one outcome is being considered in surveys of teens. The same is true, they write, about conversations with teenagers being focused more on responsibly having sex, rather than just discussing sex itself.

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"While messages about 'general sex topics' can be part of the ongoing discussion between parents and adolescents, specificity in the discussion, particularly about use of contraceptives and condoms, are likely more predictive in shaping these behaviors," researchers wrote in the editorial. "A large amount of literature in social psychology shows time and again that general attitudes do not predict specific behaviors but that behavior-specific attitudes do."

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