Smartest Teenagers Tend to Delay Sex
Mar. 16, 2000 (Eugene, Ore.) -- Highly intelligent teenagers are likely to
wait longer before having sexual intercourse for the first time, according to
researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They also
tend to postpone other types of sexual activity, such as holding hands,
kissing, and petting.
The research team, reporting in the Journal of Adolescent Health,
also found that the least intelligent adolescents are likely to delay sexual
The UNC researchers analyzed data from two studies that included more than
12,000 adolescents in seventh to 12th grades. Both used a vocabulary test to
The two groups of teens probably delay sex for different reasons, says study
author Carolyn Halpern, PhD, an assistant professor of maternal and child
health at the UNC School of Public Health.
"Those who score high on tests of verbal intelligence are probably
thinking about their educational and occupational goals and the possible
negative consequences of early sexual activity," she says. "They are
thinking about their futures. Among those with low scores, one reason for lower
sexual involvement is probably some form of extra "looking out" or
protection from parents, teachers and other gatekeepers."
Another factor may be at work, says an expert who reviewed the study for
WebMD. "Bright adolescents have many more options in their lives," says
Robert Blum, MD, PhD. "Their personal needs are met through so many
different channels: activities, friendship, all sorts of stimulation. They are
more occupied." Blum is professor of pediatrics and director of the
adolescent health center at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine in
How can the study's findings be used to help teenagers? One expert says that
those who design educational programs for adolescents should keep their varying
abilities in mind.
"You may have 10 children in a classroom, some with higher intelligence,
some lower, some in the middle," Jennifer Oliphant says. "You have to
develop educational materials designed to reach the largest number possible.
Then it's the job of the teacher in the classroom to talk to individual
students in terms adjusted to their intelligence." Oliphant is a community
outreach coordinator at the National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Research Center
at the University of Minnesota.
Halpern adds that "we know from previous studies that providing
relevant, understandable information is not sufficient to change behavior. It
is an important first step."
Research like this study can enlighten parents and educators about the best
ways to help teens at risk, Blum says. "If it is true that brighter kids
have intercourse later because they have a greater set of options and more
stimulation in their lives, then the challenge becomes how to create more
stimulating environments for kids of normal intelligence," he says.
Parents' behavior can help, too, Halpern says. "Being connected to
parents and religious organizations and schools seems to be part of the process
that protects adolescents. That's why it's so important for parents to act in
ways that show they are concerned, interested, available. Show your teens you
have time you can spend with them and want to spend with them."
She offers another tip for success: "Don't have long conversations
saying 'Don't do this; Don't do that.' Instead, focus on stimulating positive,
constructive behaviors. Frame your message in a positive way."