How Patterns of Learning About Sexual Information Among Adolescents Are Related to Sexual Behaviors

Amy Bleakley, University of Pennsylvania Atika Khurana, University of Oregon Michael Hennessy, University of Pennsylvania Morgan Ellithorpe, Michigan State University

First published online:

| DOI: https://doi.org/10.1363/psrh.12053
Abstract / Summary

Parents, peers and media are informal sources of sexual information for adolescents. Although the content of sexual information communicated by these sources is known to vary, little is known about what adolescents report actually learning from each source.


Data from 1,990 U.S.14–17-year-olds who participated in an online survey in 2015 were used to assess learning about four topics (sex, condoms, hormonal birth control and romantic relationships) from three informal sources (parents, peers, and television and movies). Gender and race differences in learning by source and topic were assessed using t tests. Following a factor analysis, learning about all topics was grouped by source, and regression analyses were conducted to examine associations between learning from each source and three outcomes: sexual activity, condom use and hormonal birth control use. Models included interactions between information sources and race and gender.


White adolescents reported learning more from parents and less from media than black adolescents. Compared with males, females learned more about hormonal birth control and less about condoms from their parents, and more about relationships from peers and media. Learning from parents and from peers were positively associated with adolescents’ sexual activity (unstandardized coefficients, 0.26 and 0.52, respectively). Learning from parents was positively associated with condom use (odds ratio, 1.5).


Adolescents’ learning about sex from informal sources varies by race and gender. Future research should examine whether sexual health interventions and message development can capitalize on these differences.

Author's Affiliations

Amy Bleakley is senior research scientist, and Michael Hennessy is statistician—both with the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Atika Khurana is associate professor, Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services, University of Oregon, Eugene. Morgan Ellithorpe is assistant professor, Department of Advertising and Public Relations, College of Communication Arts and Sciences, Michigan State University, East Lansing.


The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Guttmacher Institute.