Through a unique and innovative data-gathering method, researchers at Children's Hospital Boston have gained new insight into adolescents' sexual behavior and how sex affects their moods. Their findings appear on-line in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Using handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs), the researchers closely tracked 67 sexually active youth, aged 15 to 21, from an adolescent medicine clinic at an urban children's hospital. Each participant was given a PDA that beeped them at random, four to six times a day, asking them a series of questions about any recent sexual activity and their emotional state and feelings.
"These momentary sampling reports are completed in 'real time,' so the information is not affected by recall bias, and all data recorded in the PDA are final, so they cannot be changed later," says lead researcher Lydia Shrier, MD, MPH, of the Division of Adolescent/Young Adult Medicine at Children's. "When compared to surveys and diaries, real-time sampling using PDAs can better detect situational factors contributing to the participants' mood at the particular time."
The questions from the PDA asked participants to rate on a 5-point scale the extent to which they experienced positive or negative emotional states. The numerical responses were added together to determine the participant's overall mood at that moment in time. Other questions asked about sexual intercourse since the last signal and assessed contextual factors, including the participant's current location (school, home, etc.), companion, activity, thoughts, and substance use. If sexual intercourse had occurred since the last signal, the PDA branched into additional questions about partner type and whether a condom was used. Each report took 1 to 3 minutes to complete.
The 67 adolescents reported on a total of 266 unique sexual intercourse reports, 94 percent of which were with a main partner and only 49 percent involved the use of a condom. The findings suggest adolescents of both sexes tended to feel more positive and less negative after engaging in sex than at times after they had not.
"Understanding what youth feel after having sexual intercourse may yield insight into what motivates or deters their future sexual behavior," adds Shrier. "Although derived from a small group of adolescents, this information can guide the development of effective, more credible safer sex messages that reflect adolescents' real experiences."
This study was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, the Child Health Research Center at Children's Hospital Boston, and the Maternal and Child Health Bureau (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).
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