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School Performance Not Hurt By Teen Romance

August 16, 2010

Many parents worry that their teenagers’ sex lives are affecting their school performance, but a new study has found that teens in committed relationships do no better or worse in school than those who abstain from having sex.

The same is not true for teenagers who “hook up.” Researchers found that teens who have casual sex get lower grades and have more school-related issues compared with those who have no sex.

The findings, presented Sunday at a meeting of the American Sociological Association in Atlanta, somewhat challenge the assumptions that sexually active teens tend to do poorer in school.

Researchers say it is not about whether a teen has sex that determines his or her academic success, but the type of relationship they are engaged in. Teens in committed relationships may find social and emotional support in their partners, which in turn reduces anxiety and stress levels in life and school.

“This should give some comfort to parents who may be concerned that their teenage son or daughter is dating,” sociologist Peggy Giordano of Bowling Green State University, who was not involved in the study, told the Associated Press (AP). She added that sex in teens isn’t going to derail their education.

In a federal survey released this summer, nearly half of high school students reported having sexual intercourse in 2009, and fourteen percent said they have had four or more partners.

In the new study, sociologist Bill McCarthy of the University of California and sociologist Eric Grodsky of the University of Minnesota analyzed surveys and school transcripts from the largest national follow-up study of teens that began in the 1994-95 school year.

The researchers report that there is little change in terms of when teens first have sex or attitudes toward teen sex in the past ten years. They examined how teens’ sexual behaviors affected their learning and controlled for factors that might influence results.

The researchers found that teens in serious relationships had no difference in grade-point averages and how attached they are to school expectations compared to their abstinent counterparts. They were also not more likely to have problems in school, be suspended or absent.

They also found that when compared to abstinent teens, teens who have casual sex had lower GPAs, cared less about school and had more problems in school.

The findings showed that female teens, for example, who have casual sex had GPAs that were 0.16 points lower than abstinent females. Male teens who have casual sex had GPAs that were 0.30 points lower than abstinent males.

Teens who “hook up” also were at greater risk of being absent, suspended or expelled from school and had lower odds of expecting to further their education.

Teens who have sex — whether it is a serious or casual relationship — were at an increased risk of being absent and dropping out compared with teens who abstained from sexual activity. The researchers said the results of dropouts should be taken with caution because the numbers were relatively small.

“Having sex outside of a romantic relationship may exacerbate the stress youths experience, contributing to problems in school,” said Grodsky.

The Family Research Council told AP that the study confirms what the group has been a long advocate of about the negative consequences of casual sex.

However, the council said it has no stance on the educational impacts of teens involved in committed relationships, and cannot support a comprehensive sex education.

University of Southern California sociologist Julie Albright told AP that it might be time to revamp sex education to “emphasize the importance of relationships and spell out the consequences of casual sex.”

The study dismisses the idea that all teen sex is bad, said Marie Harvey, professor of public health at Oregon State University. “The type of relationship really matters. When it comes to sexual behavior, it takes two to tango,” she said, adding that safe sex should be maintained to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

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