Cue the presses! Teen sex is bad! A new study claims that adolescent trysts could negatively impact brain development, increase the likelihood of becoming depressed and up anxiety levels ... that is if the teens in question are male hamsters.
However, judging from some of the media coverage out there on this study, similar to celebrities, hamsters are "Just Like Us." According to the LiveScience article, which was also picked up by Fox News:
The uproar that followed a November episode of Fox's "Glee" in which two teen couples had sex for the first time may have some scientific legs. New research shows sex during the adolescent years could affect mood and brain development into adulthood.
We can ignore the fact that the alleged "uproar" was ignited by the conservative watchdog group, Parents Television Council, that it addressed an episode that (barely) showed teens engaging in consensual, safe sex and that the study was looking exclusively at male hamsters. However, what can't be ignored is the fact that the entire approach to covering this study is utterly misguided.
The study, which originated out of Ohio State University, examined three groups of male hamsters, reported LiveScience. The first mated with adult female hamsters when they reached 40-days-old (the hamster teen years), the second group held out until the ripe old age of 80 days and the last group remained abstinent. The researchers then looked at the general health and wellness of all of the hamsters at 120 days of age and found a number of negatives for those that lost their rodent V-cards early on. The ones who had sex earliest showed symptoms of depression and anxiety -- measured by their enthusiasm for swimming vigorously in a pool of water and exploring a maze, respectively. The precocious maters also exhibited less complexity in certain parts of the brain and had smaller reproductive tissues.
This study certainly has implications for hamsters and perhaps others in the animal kingdom. And if a lot of further research is conducted, maybe there is something to learn about humans too. However, as it stands, this study tells us little to nothing about non-rodent teenagers. And it definitely doesn't tell us that teen sex hinders brain development or causes "bad moods" as some headlines might lead us to believe.
It's clear that sexual experiences during adolescence impact teenagers, both emotionally and physically. Sometimes these experiences are positive and sometimes they're quite negative. However, focusing on the science of brain development and the potential "dangers" of teenage sexual encounters misses the mark and I fear might just provide an excuse for pushing abstinence-only education (both at schools and at home) and ignoring the realities of teen lives.
As of a 2009 CDC survey, 46 percent of high school students had engaged in sexual intercourse. (And this is in a country that until this past year was only awarding federal funds to abstinence-only sex education.) Telling teens that they shouldn't have sexual experiences until they're at least 18 (or 19 or 20 ...) because they might damage their brains isn't an effective tactic. It seems more akin to sex education as portrayed in the movie "Mean Girls." "Don't have sex! Cause you will get pregnant -- and die," says the gym-teacher-turned-sex-educator in the film as he stand in front of a chalkboard with the words Safe Sex and Abstinence written down in all caps. Classically (and realistically) the class looks unimpressed and a little bit confused.
Instead of shaming and confusing our kids -- or ignoring the issue of sex altogether -- we need to push for more open and honest dialogue in our homes and our schools. Parents should be talking to their children about sex in whatever way they feel comfortable doing so, sharing their values and encouraging their teenagers to make responsible and informed decisions. When teens are properly educated about sex and the potential emotional ramifications that come along with it, they'll be more likely to make good decisions; when there is an open atmosphere at home, if they make a misstep they'll feel comfortable opening up about it.
And when it comes to dialogue and emotional connection, we're way ahead of hamsters.