Smartest Teenagers Tend to Delay Sex

From the WebMD Archives

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 activities.

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 measure intelligence.

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 Minneapolis.

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."

Vital Information:

  • A new study shows that highly intelligent teens are more likely to delay sex and other intimate behaviors, as are the least intelligent teens.
  • Researchers believe these two groups delay sex for different reasons.
  • One reason the more intelligent teens may delay sex is that they tend to be focused on future goals and activities, while for teens with lower intelligence, parents and teachers may be more protective.