Where Are Teens Going for Information about Sex?

January 13, 2011

A new study shows that less than a quarter of parents believe that kids listen when they talk to them about the birds and the bees.

Both parents and adolescents agree that parents should be the most important providers of information about sex and sexuality, according to new research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

In a new study, researchers interviewed 1,605 parents of primarily white, school-aged children in Minnesota, asking where they thought kids should get their information about sexuality compared to where they actually get sex information.

Although 98% of parents felt youth should receive their sex education from parents, only 24% believed they were the main providers of sex education information. A significant majority of parents (78%) believed that kids received the majority of information about sex from friends, and 60% identified media as the main source.

“Based on previous research, however, youth indicate that parents are a primary source of sex information for them and that parents most influence their decisions about sex,” said study co-author Debra Bernat, PhD, of Florida State University, in a press release.

The study “begs the question of why youth cannot get the information that they seek—and prefer—from their own parents,” said Nancy Irwin, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and cognitive behavioral specialist in Los Angeles, CA. “This should be a wake-up call to parents. You and your kids want the exact same thing. What’s missing are the proper tools.”

Despite the fact that there has been much controversy about sex education in schools, the majority of parents listed teachers as the second preferred source of information, followed by health care professionals and then religious leaders.

“School-based sex education programs are very important since this may be the only source of information for some young people,” beyond peers and media, Bernat added.

The study did not differentiate between types of media, which might explain why only 3.5% of parents accepted it as a good source for teens. “The proportion of parents endorsing media might have been different had we separated out movies, television, books and the Internet, and specified who provided it to the young person.” Bernat said.

Based on the study’s findings, the authors conclude that more attention should be given toward ensuring that parents are incorporated into sex education programs. Because of the influential role that that parents play in sexual decision-making among youth, they should be “equipped with accurate information along with effective means for communicating with their children,” they wrote. “Therefore, programs aimed at parents should be available for all adults who do or potentially could influence the sexual decisions made by youth. Investment should be directed toward evidence-based sustainable programs that increase parental awareness of the influence they have o sexuality is integrated within the fabric of ongoing, supportive parent— child communication.

To access the Journal of Adolescent Health study, click here.