Are Sexually Active Teenagers At Greater Risk For Depression? "Yes," Say Hamsters

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I recently read an article entitled Teen Sex May Affect Brain Development, which suggested that sexually active adolescents may have an elevated risk of mood disorders compared to their peers who remain abstinent. Several prominent news sites have run similar stories in recent days. This got me wondering whether there was anything to this idea. Are sexually active teenagers really more prone to psychological problems? My analysis of the research in this area suggests that this is not the case.

The basis for these recent news articles is a study presented at the November 2011 Society for Neuroscience conference. In this study, researchers compared hamsters (yes, you read that right--hamsters) that mated early in life to hamsters that did not mate until they were older (or in some cases, they never mated at all). Results indicated that the earlier in life hamsters started getting it on, the more "depressive" symptoms they exhibited later. These "symptoms" included swimming less vigorously in water and exhibiting more anxiety when exploring a maze. Based upon these findings alone, several news outlets jumped at the opportunity to argue that parallel effects might occur in humans. Is it really appropriate to make such generalizations, though, especially across such different species? And does the available scientific evidence in humans back up this idea?

It appears that the effects of early sex in hamsters is not necessarily an accurate reflection of what happens in humans. Specifically, research on humans has found that although some adolescents experienced worse mental health outcomes after becoming sexually active, the majority of them did not [1]. The risk of depression was highest among those whose first sexual experience occurred in a relationship that ended shortly after they began having sex, and also among girls who lost their virginity at a very early age. Thus, adolescent sex was not inherently linked to poor mental health. It was only when adolescent sex was combined with certain personal and social factors that it seemed to contribute to worse outcomes.

Before you start accusing the researchers who carried out the hamster study of making inappropriate generalizations, I should point out that they used very cautious language when talking about the implications of their study and never claimed that their results were a direct reflection of what happens in humans. However, cautious claims do not make for very interesting or sexy headlines, which may be why many media reports of research make claims that go far beyond the bounds of the actual data (for additional examples relevant to the hamster study, see the headlines here and here). Furthermore, in the rush to keep the hamster wheel spinning in our 24-7 news cycle, articles are often pushed to press before all of the facts have been collected. The end result is that the story told by the media may be very different from the story told by the scientists.  

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[1] Meier, A. M. (2007). Adolescent first sex and subsequent mental health. American Journal of Sociology, 112, 1811-1847.

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