Teenagers with the Least Adult Supervision Engage In the Most Sexual Activity

D. Hollander

First published online:

The more time that high school students spend without adult supervision, the higher their level of sexual activity.1 In a sample of youths attending a school-based sexually transmitted disease (STD) screening program, the proportion who had ever had intercourse rose steadily from 68% among those who were unsupervised for five or fewer hours per week to 80% among those who spent 30 or more hours without adult supervision. In addition, male students' lifetime number of partners rose steadily, from 3.7 to 4.7, as the amount of time they spent without supervision increased. Young women who took part in after-school activities were less likely than those who did not to be sexually experienced (59% vs. 71%).

These data are among the findings of a survey conducted in six urban public high schools during the 2000-2001 academic year. In all, 2,034 youths (1,065 males and 969 females) completed the self-administered questionnaire. Participants were about evenly distributed among students in grades 9-12 and were predominantly black (98%) and from low-income families (79%). Fifty-two percent lived with their mother only, and 27% lived with both parents; only 4% lived with their father only, and the rest in some other arrangement.

Roughly half of the students reported that they were unsupervised every day after school, one-quarter were without supervision 1-4 afternoons a week and one-quarter always had adult supervision. Two-thirds were unsupervised for three or more hours daily, including 38% who had no supervision for six or more hours each afternoon. The number of unsupervised hours did not differ markedly between males and females, or between youngsters from one-parent and those from two-parent families; it increased with grade level. Close to half of youths were in or planned to join an after-school activity; the proportion was significantly higher among males (55%) than among females (41%).

Three-quarters of respondents (about four in five males and two in three females) were sexually experienced; 42% of males and 9% of females had first had intercourse before age 14. Males reported a greater lifetime number of partners than females (4.2 vs. 2.4, on average), and they were more likely to have had multiple partners in the previous three months (60% vs. 51%). Nearly all sexually experienced youths said that their most recent episode of intercourse had occurred in someone's home: their own (37%), their partner's (43%) or a friend's (12%). The proportion reporting having last had sex in their own home was significantly higher among males (43%) than among females (28%). More than half of sexually experienced respondents reported that they had last had intercourse on a weekday--18% before three in the afternoon, 17% between three and six, and 21% sometime after six.

The proportion of students who had ever had intercourse grew from 68% among those reporting five or fewer hours of unsupervised time per week to 75% among those who were unsupervised for 6-29 hours and 80% among those with no adult supervision for at least 30 hours a week. The general pattern of increasing levels of sexual experience with decreasing supervision held for both genders but was linear only for males. Young women who reported participating in after-school activities had a lower probability than other females of having engaged in intercourse (59% vs. 71%).

Young men's lifetime number of partners rose from an average of 3.7 among those with the greatest supervision to 4.2 among those with moderate supervision and to 4.7 among those with the least supervision. For young women, by contrast, the average increased from 2.1 among those who were unsupervised for five or fewer hours weekly to 2.5 among participants who lacked adult supervision for 6-29 hours, and it remained at that level among young women reporting 30 or more unsupervised hours each week. The average lifetime number of partners increased steadily with grade; students in grade 12 had had 1.5 more partners than ninth graders. Results of linear regression analysis confirmed that lack of supervision has an independent effect on young people's lifetime number of partners.

One in 10 participants had had any STD. Among females, the proportion changed little (from 15% to 20%) from the lowest to the highest amount of unsupervised time; among males, however, it more than doubled (from 6% to 14%). The association among males held even when potentially confounding factors were controlled for in logistic regression analyses.

As the researchers acknowledge, the study has important potential limitations: Since the respondents were participants in an STD program, the sample may have been biased toward youths who were having unprotected intercourse. Furthermore, information about supervision reflected students' perception of the average amount of time they were unsupervised and was not confirmed by any objective measure. Nevertheless, given the associations uncovered between lack of supervision and risky behavior, the investigators conclude that "it is worth considering increasing youth supervision, not only by parents and other responsible family members and friends but also by programs at schools and other community settings." They add that "the provision of alternative supervised activities may be a higher priority for boys."--D. Hollander


1. Cohen D et al., When and where do youths have sex? the potential role of adult supervision, Pediatrics, 2002, 110(6), <http:/www.pediatrics.org/cgi/content/full/110/6/e66&gt;.