Should Teens Be More Sexually Active?
The real threat to kids’ mental health is loneliness, not sexual activity.
Posted Feb 26, 2020
A few months ago I read a disturbing article by Kate Julian in The Atlantic. It reported that contrary to popular belief, young people today are having sex far less often than their parents and grandparents did when they were young. While that might be cause for celebration for some (I’m a parent of five children in their late teens and early 20s and happy that none has experienced an unwanted pregnancy), I became much more worried when I read that young adults are also becoming much lonelier than ever before.
Put those two facts together, and we have a problem which is snowballing into a crisis.
First, the sex part of the problem. While masturbation and the use of porn are rising thanks to the internet, young people are reporting far fewer hookups or even committed relationships. It’s not even clear if they want sexual contact given the emotional demands it places on youth.
Without committed, or at least serial, sexual partners, our kids are going to have less sex. People in committed relationships have the most sex despite the stereotype of stale relationships under-performing and hot singles acting like rabbits. Remove that consistency, and make relationships difficult to find, and suddenly we have a problem that is thwarting our children’s social and psychosexual development. Whether reviewing surveys by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta or studies by individual academics, these trends are clear: Young people may be spending more time online and looking for sex but they are having very little success when it comes to getting it on with real people. Birth rates are falling, but so too are young people’s experiences of intimacy and the social skills it takes to be in a relationship.
There are plenty of possible reasons for this shift, including the difficulty these days of asking someone to a movie: It is so common now to hear young people describe social contact with a relative stranger or even an acquaintance as “creepy” that we have to accept that there are few easy ways for young people to meet any longer. Then there are facts like young people staying at home longer with their parents and a failure to launch, combined with distractions like social media and video games—neurological triggers with remarkably similar effects on young brains as sex. Whatever the reason for the decline, it is clear that our kids are avoiding sex and with it the opportunity to feel connected to others.
Which brings me to the part of the story that really caught my attention: While staying at home and masturbating doesn’t seem like the end of the world, when it becomes a substitute for years of social experimentation and learning how to be intimate, loneliness is the natural, most likely outcome. And loneliness, unfortunately, is a big problem. According to a recent paper in Psychological Medicine authored by Timothy Matthews and his colleagues at Kings College London, 18-year-olds who reported being lonely as children were at far greater risk for mental health problems and to report worse physical health as well as risky physical behaviors like risk-taking. Just as bad, they used more negative coping strategies like substance abuse. They were also less confident about finding a job and more likely to be unemployed, which would seem to predict further social isolation and a slower transition to independence—which would hopefully make having a sex life easier. Combined, too little sex and a growing pattern of loneliness is damaging our kids.
Can We Fix the Problem?
Of course, there are ways other than having sex for young people to confront loneliness. But sex is an important part of our development. The real issue is that sex is one of many ways that young people gain a feeling of connection. When the pathway to intimacy and social cohesion is frayed or torn altogether—if the number of young people who are still virgins in their late 20s is any indication, I’d have to say it is definitely broken—then clearly something has gone terribly wrong with what should be a fairly normal process of growing up.
I know there are no simple solutions, but maybe we need to start by thinking less about protecting our children from sexual adventures and instead encourage them to have safe sex at the same rates their parents and grandparents did. That means that by the time our kids leave high school, at least half would have had sexual intercourse, or its equivalent, at least once. For the others, we can hope they find the opportunity to explore their sexuality a short time later.
Encouraging this bodily adventure is also going to lead us to ask tough questions about how we parent and condition young people. For example, how do we get young people off their phones and back into face-to-face interactions? My colleagues who teach undergrad courses routinely insist that students turn off their phones and are now structuring class time to include social interactions. It’s a nice beginning, though a long way from guaranteeing a satisfying tumble in bed.
Then there is the need for better sex education and reminders that porn is porn and sex with a real person is just plain different. I’m not sure that our kids understand fully the need for intimacy that comes with sex. They’ve got the mechanics down, but they don’t seem to fully appreciate what it means to have someone really care about you, and you about them.
Maybe the simplest solution will be good old fashion dances and other socials. That may date me, but maybe we need to find ways to remind young people that it can be nice to flirt and be out in public with people we find attractive.
We may also want to remind kids (and adults) that when someone pays them a compliment in the elevator at work it may be a cue that they are trying, awkwardly, to reach out. Maybe we need to let down our guard a little and accept that not every effort to say hello is creepy. That is going to mean all genders taking responsibility for making the first move, not just males.
If we don’t do something soon, I fear for the mental health of our children.
Matthews T, Danese A, Caspi A, Fisher HL, Goldman-Mellor S, Kepa A, Moffitt TE, Odgers CL, Arseneault L. (2018) Lonely young adults in modern Britain: findings from an epidemiological cohort study. Psychol Med 24:1-10. doi: 10.1017/S0033291718000788.