Taiwanese teenagers who become sexually active are more likely to experience externalizing problems, such as aggressive and rule-breaking behaviors, with the association increased in magnitude with earlier sexual initiation (< 16 years) and female gender. Meanwhile, only female early sexual initiators had significantly increased risk of anxiety or depression problems. These are the findings of a national study of Taiwanese youth led by Dr. Wei J. Chen of the National Taiwan University, with his former Master’s degree student Ms. Chia-Hua Chan as first author. This study has been published in the March issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Nearly 19,000 16- to 19-year-old Taiwanese adolescents, 8,842 tenth grade and 10,083 twelfth grade students, took part in a national survey in 2005 and 2006, which was conducted through a self-administered web-based questionnaire. Sociodemographic data and information on respondents’ sexual experience and substance abuse was collected. Adolescent emotional and behavioral problems were assessed using the Youth Self-Report that focuses on eight syndromes associated with teenagers, ranging from anxiety and somatic complaints to having social problems or showing rule-breaking and aggressive behavior.
“The percentage of adolescents reporting to have sexual experience in this study was relatively low – up to 5.8 percent of tenth graders and 11.4 percent of twelfth graders,” said Dr. Chen. However, his team found that sexual initiation during adolescence was consistently associated with externalizing problems including rule-breaking and aggressive behavior. This was especially true for adolescents who started having sex at a very young age, and for females. Adolescents who were withdrawn or socially isolated tended to delay their first sexual experiences more than others.
Their findings revealed that youths who became sexually active before age 16 had a much more risky sociobehavioral profile than their peers. This included having more sexual partners, truancy, coming from a single-parent family, and using a variety of substances. “This might be because younger people are still not good at impulse control and decision making,” said Ms. Chan. In particular, pointed out by Dr. Chen, “Adolescents with same-sex partners, regardless of being male or female, reported more internalizing problems such as being withdrawn or being anxious and/or depressed. Bisexual males reported struggling with a whole range of syndromes, while female bisexual youths were only found to be especially aggressive.”
The researchers hope their findings will guide efforts to develop preventive and interventional sex education programs aimed at adolescents’ distinct needs. “Although sexual initiation in adolescence is less common in Taiwan, the results indicate that the sexually experienced adolescents were associated with a cluster of adverse socio-behavioral consequences, similar to those found in Western societies,” said Dr. Chen. “These adolescents exhibited a higher level of emotional or behavioral problems that deserve more attention in order to improve their health and well-being.”