Character  &  Context

Social Influence and Teen Sex: What Matters and What Doesn’t

Image of four young boys and girls sitting near one another, all using tablets or phones
By Benjamin Le
 
American parents often worry that their adolescent children are susceptible to their friends’ influence and will be pressured into having sex before they are ready to do so. Are these worries justified?
 
Past research has found that social influence is associated with behaviors such as smoking and alcohol use among teenagers.1,2 A recent study3 extended this work and investigated whether three types of social influence predict adolescent sexual behavior:
 
  1. Peer pressure refers to the explicit and direct social pressure to conform with the demands of a particular group to “fit in.” In this case, adolescents might be motivated to have sex (or not) because they think they will be liked better by their friends, or disliked if they don’t conform to the group (i.e., “C’mon, everyone’s doing it”).
  2. Thinking Your Friends Approve: Injunctive norms are reflected in one’s beliefs about others’ attitudes towards a particular behavior. For example, an adolescent may believe that their friends approve or disapprove of having sex. The friends are not directly telling the teenager to have sex (that would be peer pressure, see above). Rather, injunctive norms operate indirectly; friends and classmates may simply make it known that they think having sex is okay (or not).
  3. Thinking Your Friends are Doing It: Descriptive norms refer to what one believes others themselves are doing. If a teenager believes that their peers are having sex, then they may be more likely to also engage in sex as result of role modeling or imitation. Like injunctive norms, it is a less direct form of social influence than explicit peer pressure.
 
So, which of these forms of social influence are most strongly associated with adolescent sex?
 
The research team3 combined the results from 58 independent studies conducted between 1980 and 2012, including almost 70,000 adolescents from 24 countries, using a statistical technique known as meta-analysis. By combining the results from many studies about a particular topic, the findings generated by a meta-analysis are powerful because they are relatively uninfluenced by statistical aberrations from a single study.
 
Of the three types of social influence, descriptive norms had the largest association with adolescent sexual behavior. Injunctive norms were the next best predictor of teenage sex, and peer pressure was the weakest. In short, although parents may be worried about the effects of peer pressure on their teenage children, simply knowing about their friends’ and classmates’ own sexual behavior is likely a much more powerful force for adolescents.
 
This post originally appeared on the Science of Relationship site. 
 
1De Vries, H., Backbier, E., Kok, G., & Dijkstra, M. (1995). The impact of social influences in the context of attitude, self-efficacy, intention, and previous behavior as predictors of smoking onset. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 25, 237-257.
 
2Borsari, B., & Carey, K. B. (2003). Descriptive and injunctive norms in college drinking: A meta-analytic integration. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 64, 331.
 
3van de Bongardt, D., Reitz, E., Sandfort, T., & Dekovic, M. (in press). A meta-analysis of the relations between three types of peer norms and adolescent sexual behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Review. Online first.
 
 

 
Dr. Le’s research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.
 
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