Perceived norms influence teen sex activity more than peer pressure

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Teens’ perceptions of how sexually active their peers are may have the greatest impact on their own sexual behavior, suggests a new analysis of previous studies.

But actual peer pressure had the smallest effect on teens’ decisions to have sex, the authors found.

“To promote youth sexual health, it is important to understand when and why adolescents decide to become sexually active or to engage in risky sexual behavior,” Daphne van de Bongardt told Reuters Health in an email.

“We know that adolescents make their behavioral decisions – in part – by looking at existing norms about certain behaviors among their peers. But we do not exactly know how sexual peer norms are related to adolescent sexual behavior,” said Van de Bongardt, a researcher at Utrecht University in The Netherlands, who led the study.

She and her colleagues wanted to know how teens’ perceptions of their peers’ sexual behaviors and attitudes influenced their own decisions about having sex and about having risky sex, such as without protection against STDS or pregnancy.

So they combined the results of 58 studies that were conducted between 1980 and 2012 in 15 different countries around the globe.

“We were able to show what these different studies tell us, overall, about the role that sexual peer norms play in adolescent sexual behavior,” van de Bongardt said of the results published in Personality and Social Psychology Review.

The researchers looked at three different kinds of norms. One was teens’ perceptions of what their peers were doing, another was what they thought their peers would approve of and the third was how much direct peer pressure they felt.

The study team found that perceptions of their peers’ activity had the greatest influence on teens, followed by their perceptions of what their peers would think. Peer pressure appeared to have the least influence.

“All three peer norms matter, but what adolescents think that their peers do (role modeling) is most important,” van de Bongardt said. “Adolescents who think that their peers engage in sex are more likely to engage in sex themselves.”

Although many adults might consider peer pressure to be the biggest risk, our analysis found that peer pressure actually had the smallest effect on sexual behavior, van de Bongardt added.

Age and gender were also important, the study team found. Overall, the impact of peer sexual behaviors was strongest during middle adolescence and it was more important for girls than boys.

“The strength of these relations between sexual peer norms and adolescent sexual behavior differed across age groups, genders, ethnic groups, countries, and different peer types,” van de Bongardt said. “But more research is needed to further investigate these differences.”

The study had some limitations, she and her coauthors note. Most of the studies defined adolescent sexual behavior as heterosexual intercourse, which leaves out other forms of sexual activity teens might engage in.

It’s also not clear if teens were influenced by their friends or chose their friends because they have similar ideas about sex.

“More longitudinal studies are needed to disentangle the extent to which adolescents are influenced by peers in their sexual behaviors or the extent to which they select peers who share similar sexual norms,” van de Bongardt said. “Our meta-analysis suggests that both processes play a role.”

It is important for parents, teachers and healthcare professionals to be aware that there are different ways in which peers can affect adolescents’ sexual behaviors, van de Bongardt said.

She pointed out that research has shown many adolescents’ perceptions of peers’ attitudes and behaviors are often misperceptions.

“By providing accurate information about the prevalence of sexual behaviors among peers, adults can correct such misperceptions, and stimulate adolescents’ responsible and healthy sexual decision making,” van de Bongardt said.

SOURCE: Personality and Social Psychology Review, online September 12, 2014.