How intimate are Generation Z young teenagers?

Issued: Wed, 19 Jun 2019 12:02:00 BST

Published 21st June 2019

Fewer than one in 30 14-year-olds in the UK have had sexual intercourse or oral sex – less than previous studies may have suggested, according to new research led by University College London and involving Dr Ruth Lewis from the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit.

The study, published today in the Journal of Adolescent Health and funded by the The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Medical Research Centre (MRC), used data from the Millennium Cohort Study of over 11,000 children who were born in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002.

Participants were asked about a range of ‘light’, ‘moderate,’ and ‘heavy’ intimate activities. Handholding, kissing and cuddling were classed as ‘light’, touching and fondling under clothes as ‘moderate’ and oral sex or sexual intercourse as ‘heavy.’

The researchers from UCL, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and University of Glasgow, found that that 58% of 14-year-olds had engaged in ‘light’ activity, while 7.5% had been engaged in ‘moderate’ activity. However, in contrast to other studies, researchers found only a very small proportion, 3.2%, had been involved in ‘heavy’ activities.

Professor Yvonne Kelly (UCL Epidemiology and Health Care) said, “Previous studies have shown us that 30% of those born in the 1980s and 1990s had sex before the age of 16, and that among those born in the early 1990s a little under one in five had done so by age 15. But this study of slightly younger teenagers, based on 14-year-olds born during or just after the year 2000, paints a rather different picture of this latest generation.”

“That said, intimacy is common among teenagers and young people need to know how to ensure their experiences are mutually wanted, protected, and pleasurable. A positive or negative first experience could affect them for the rest of their lives.”

The study also found that teenagers who were most likely to confide worries in a friend rather than a parent, those whose parents didn’t always know where they were, and those who stayed out late were more likely than others were to be engaged in heavier forms of sexual activity. Other potential links were found to drug-taking and as well as to symptoms of depression.

In addition, boys were slightly more likely to report ‘moderate activity’ compared with girls (8.7% versus 6.3% respectively), but there were no gender differences for ‘light’ or ‘heavy’ activity.

Professor Kelly added, “Experimentation and pushing boundaries is all part and parcel of growing up. Young people who push many boundaries at once - those who drink, smoke or stay out late, for instance, are more likely to engage in early sexual activity.”

“Supporting young people to minimise risk and promote wellbeing is crucial – and initiatives aiming to do this should look at intimate activities, health behaviours and social relationships in relation to one another.”

Partnered intimate activities in early adolescence – findings from the UK Millennium Cohort Study is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.


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