Teens who date and are sexually active are known to
be at elevated risk for depression, but why those
associations exist is poorly understood.
Now a new Cornell study has found that casual sexual
"hookups" increased a teenager's odds for
clinical-level depression nearly threefold, whereas
dating and sexual activity within a committed
relationship had no significant impact. The effects
held true for boys and girls, though younger teens
(13-15 years old) who had so-called "nonromantic
sex" faced substantially greater risks for
depression. In contrast, dating alone was not linked
to depressive symptoms, nor was sexual activity
within a stable, committed relationship.
Rodin, Il bacio - Tate Gallery
Researchers led by Jane Mendle, assistant professor
of human development in Cornell's College of Human
Ecology, said the study provides evidence that "context
is key" when trying to understand how teen
relationships and sex affect their well-being. The
research is published online in the Journal of
"Many historical and media perspectives have
presented adolescent sexuality as an indicator of
problematic or even socially deviant behavior,"
Mendle said. "But this study and other recent
findings are showing that's not the case, and
adolescent dating and sexuality can be viewed as
normal developmental behavior."
Using a novel behavioral genetics approach that
compares siblings growing up in the same home,
Mendle and her co-authors analyzed responses from
1,551 sibling pairs ages 13-18 from the National
Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a
nationally representative sample of U.S. high school
students initiated in the mid-1990s. Among other
topics, teens answered questions about their mental
health and dating and sexual history. Nearly
two-thirds of the sample's youth had dated, and
two-thirds were virgins.
By comparing siblings in their study, the authors
could control for family and environmental
influences that might also raise one's risk for
"We designed the study to give us a purer way to
isolate many of the factors that could be
contributing to depression," Mendle said. "It allows
us to compare specific types of social activities --
in this case, dating and romantic and nonromantic
sex -- to see their overall effect."
The paper notes that not all the associations at
play can be unraveled, however. For instance, some
teens who have depressive symptoms or clinical
depression may be more likely to engage in casual
Mendle, a licensed clinical psychologist who studies
how such developmental processes as puberty and
sexual maturation influence teens' emotional growth,
believes adolescent sexuality is important to study
because it is closely tied to how well people
transition into adulthood.
"One of the hallmarks of adolescence is the
formation of romantic relationships, and we know
that what happens in adolescence is strongly related
to your psychological, physical and financial
well-being for years to come," Mendle said. "Findings
like this can help shape the dialogue and public
debate about how to best support teen sexual health,
psychological development and other areas."
The study co-authors include Sarah Moore, a Cornell
graduate student in the field of human development;
Joseph Ferrero, formerly a graduate student at the
University of Oregon; and Paige Harden, assistant
professor of psychology at the University of Texas.
To have sex
or make love
For more information
Depression and adolescent sexual activity in
romantic and nonromantic relational contexts: A
genetically-informative sibling comparison.
Mendle, Jane; Ferrero, Joseph; Moore, Sarah R.;
Harden, K. Paige
Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol 122(1), Feb
2013, 51-63. doi: 10.1037/a0029816