Importance of Peer Influences on Preteens

Teen sexual behaviors are concerning because of their impact on lifelong sexual health. For example, youth who initiate sex at an earlier age have higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases.1 Previous research shows that peer influence affects sexual behaviors in teens. However, few researchers have explored the impact of peer influence in preteens who have not yet engaged in risky sexual behaviors. One such study by Wallace et al. examined how peer norms influence preteen attitudes on dating and sexual activity, as well as intention to have sex.2

The participants in this study included 1,046 fourth and fifth grade African American students from Georgia and Arkansas, who had been recruited to take part in a community-based family intervention on sexual health education. At the beginning of the 3 year study, participants answered baseline surveys about sexual attitudes and intentions. Three variables covered in the baseline survey were the focus of the current study: perceived peer norms (e.g., “How many of your friends have ever had sex?”), youth attitudes (e.g., “I think I should wait until I am married before I have sex.”) and intent to have sex (e.g., “How many times have you thought about having sex with a boy/girl?”). Regression analyses of survey results predicted youth attitudes and intent to have sex. The authors found that perceived peer norms are a factor in a preteen’s attitudes about sex and dating and their decision to have sex. A student whose peers are sexually active is more likely to engage in early sexual behavior than a student whose peers are not. This may indicate that the desire for acceptance within a preteen’s social circle is strong enough to encourage risky behaviors. There was no significant difference between male and female preteens regarding the impact of peer influences on their sexual attitudes and intentions.

The study is limited by the use of self-reports on sexual attitudes and behaviors by participants. Additionally, the study took place in a limited geographical area of two states and only among African American students. Therefore, the results may not be representative of all youth attitudes and behaviors. It is interesting to note, however, that these results are comparable to similar studies with older students.3 The authors state that early preventative education and a focus on managing peer pressure and perceived norms may help students abstain from sexual activity during their teenage years. Findings from this study encourage further examination into the important topic of peer influences and how they drive adolescent sexual behaviors. An understanding of these processes can help improve strategies for youth sex education.

The Medical Institute promotes evidence-based risk avoidance messages for youth. Avoiding sexual activity at a young age allows youth to focus on their life goals and a healthy future.

References:

1. Sandfort TG, Orr M, Hirsch JS, Santelli J. Long term health correlates of timing of sexual debut: Results from a national US study. Am J Pub Health 2008; 98(1):155–161.
2. Wallace SA, Miller KS, Forehand R. Perceived peer norms and sexual intentions among African American preadolescents. AIDS Educ Prev. 2008; 20(3):360-369
3. Jaccard J, Blanton H, Dodge T. Peer influences on risk behavior: An analysis of the effects of a close friend. Developmental Psychology 2005; 41(1):135–147.

Reviewed: July 2010

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