Aug. 29, 1997 Aug. 29, 1997
Writer: Cathy Keen
Source: Daniel Perkins (352) 392-2201
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Alcohol use is the best predictor of whether teen-agers are sexually active, regardless of their race or gender, a new University of Florida study finds.
"One of the most effective ways to reduce teen-age pregnancy is to steer kids away from alcohol," said Daniel Perkins, a professor in UF's family, youth and community sciences department. "If we can target our prevention work at alcohol and engage kids in positive activities outside of school, we can decrease the odds they will be sexually active."
Heavy alcohol use tripled the likelihood of teen-age sexual activity for white males, doubled it for Hispanic males and increased it by 18 percent for black males, the study found. For all females, alcohol use was the one risk factor that increased the probability of sexual activity by 10 percent or more.
Research shows alcohol lowers inhibitions and interferes with people's ability to make sound decisions based on logic and thought, Perkins said. "If you're both drinking alcohol and a little out of it, it might seem like the right thing to do," he said.
The study is based on a survey of more than 15,000 students between the ages of 12 and 17 in Michigan public schools in spring and fall 1994. It found that the average age at which teen-agers become sexually active is 14, said Perkins, who did the research with professors at Michigan State University and the University of Wisconsin.
If the risk factors remain constant, the study found that a significantly higher proportion of black teen-age males were sexually active (79 percent) than Hispanic males (54 percent) and white males (37 percent). Similarly, black teen-age females were more likely to be sexually active (57 percent) than their Hispanic (38 percent) and white (33 percent) counterparts.
"One possible reason for the high rates among African-Americans is, sexual activity involves less of a social stigma for them than for adolescents in other cultures," Perkins said. "Not only may it not be viewed as especially risky or taboo, but it may actually be considered normal or expected behavior. For Hispanics, it may be the influence of Catholicism on their culture that lowers the rates they engage in sexual activity."
As with using heavy amounts of alcohol, getting low grades or experiencing peer pressure made teen-agers of both sexes and across all ethnic groups more likely to have intercourse, the study found.
"Often what we see in early adolescence is that parents' involvement in school drops dramatically and they become too removed from their child's education," Perkins said. "Succeeding in class and after-school programs is important because it helps teen-agers to foster a sense of self that makes it easier for them to get through difficult times."
Even though peer pressure plays a major role in teen-age decision making, it does not rule out the influence that parents can have, he said.
"There is no doubt that teens turn to peers for advice on dating and other subjects, but if they have a really difficult question to ask in terms of their future -- like whether to go to college or pursue a career -- they're going to turn to their parents," Perkins said.
Low church attendance and viewing God as unimportant in one's life increased the likelihood of sexual activity for white and Hispanic males, but not for black males. With females, lack of religious participation and viewing God as unimportant in one's life were risk factors for whites and blacks, but not for Hispanics, Perkins said.
"The results of our study suggest that parents, programs and communities should focus their efforts on trying to decrease the risk factors and increase opportunities for adolescents to build the skills necessary to deal with difficult situations," he said. "For example, if you're a mom or dad, maybe making that extra effort to attend church services or allowing your child to participate in youth groups at church would be helpful. You could also encourage your teen to get involved in extracurricular activities that allow them to build their skills."
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