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Ann Meier

Ann Meier

Study examines link between early sex and mental health

While most teens suffer no mental health side effects, some teens appear to be more at risk

June 5, 2007

A new study by University of Minnesota assistant sociology professor Ann Meier has taken a close look at the mental health effects of teenage sex.

Overall, the study suggests that the risk of suffering mental health consequences from early sex is relatively low, with negative effects primarily found in a subset of teens--girls and boys who have sex earlier than their peers and whose relationships are uncommitted and ultimately fall apart. Among this group, girls were particularly vulnerable to depression.

Meier used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, and studied 8,563 students in grades 7 through 12 over an 18-month period, measuring for depression and low self-esteem. The study compared the mental health of teens who didn't have sex at all to teens who were virgins at the beginning of the study, but had sex during the 18-month period.

She found that a majority of teens did not experience depression or low self-esteem as a result of first-time sex. But about 15 percent did--and those teens tended to be the youngest (girls who had sex before age 15 and boys who had sex before 14) and those whose relationships were not emotionally close and ended after the sex.

"Being female or younger than the average age at first-time sex among your peers increases the chance of depression, as does a lack of commitment or intimacy within the relationship and what happens to the relationship after first-time sex," says Meier. "For girls in uncommitted relationships, ending a relationship with sex [involved] has more of an impact on mental health than ending that same relationship if it did not involve sex."

Even though the majority of teens engaging in early sex do not suffer mental health consequences, "some do," Meier says, "and when half of all teens are having sex, that can lead to a large number in the population [having negative consequences]."

Meier points out that her study measured depressive symptoms in the teens on a depression scale, and was not meant to diagnose clinical depression.

The study could have ramifications as the federal government and states continue to define the role and efficacy of abstinence education in schools. Language contained in the 1996 welfare reform act mandates that schools receiving federal funding for sex education must adopt an abstinence curriculum. As one of eight guiding points, the curriculum is meant to teach that sexual activity outside of marriage "is likely to have harmful physical and psychological effects," Meier says. Her research does not suggest a strong correlation between teen sex and harmful psychological effects.

Meier cautions that the study does not suggest that positive effects result from first-time sex among teens and said she hopes it will help policy makers focus help on those most vulnerable rather than promoting a one-size-fits-all approach. Her study, "Adolescent First Sex and Subsequent Mental Health," will be published in the upcoming issue of the American Journal of Sociology.