When it comes to preventing teenage pregnancy, educators and public health officials need to address attitudes toward risky sex, pregnancy, and birth control—specifically, boys' attitudes toward those things. Boys who most embrace risky sex, think the least of getting someone pregnant, and feel the least able to ensure contraception are more likely to become fathers—and less likely to live with their kids—in young adulthood, according to a new study.
While researchers are paying more attention to young men's attitudes toward sex in adolescence (and how those attitudes affect their futures), a research team led by Craig Garfield, an associate professor of medicine at Northwestern University, writes in the Journal of Adolescent Health, many questions remain—and answering them is essential. "Knowing which young men may be at risk for early or nonresident fatherhood allows for innovative educational programs and public health interventions that focus on prevention for young men in adolescence," Garfield and his team write.
"Intervening early can help identify risks to young men's physical and mental health, resulting in a potentially healthier male, partner and father."
For answers, the researchers turned to Add Health—formally, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health—which began in 1994 with a panel of more than 12,000 adolescent boys and young men between the ages of 12 and 21. Among many other things, Add Health asked its boys about their knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs regarding risky sexual behaviors, pregnancy, and birth control during two rounds of interviews between 1994 and 1996. During two additional waves of interviews in 2001–02 and 2007–08 researchers asked whether each participant had kids and, if so, whether they were living with them. As with all such studies, Add Health also collected a variety of socioeconomic and demographic data on their subjects.
By 2008, about one-third of the young men had become fathers, and of that subset, one-fifth lived apart from their children. Participants' attitudes toward sex had a lot to do with those outcomes. Those with attitudes most likely to lead to risky sex, such as thinking that friends would respect them more if they had sex, were 71 percent more likely to have kids in adolescence and, according to a follow-up analysis, 30 percent more likely to be dads living apart from their kids compared with those who had average attitudes toward risky sex.
Similarly, an uncaring attitude toward getting a girl pregnant raised the odds of becoming non-resident fathers by 20 percent and raised the odds of being a resident dad by 11 percent compared to those with less flippant views. Finally, those who felt most able to ensure the use of birth control were 44 percent less likely to become adolescent fathers and 28 percent less likely to be non-resident fathers.
"The ability to identify young men during adolescence [at risk of] nonoptimal fatherhood paths has the potential to pave the way for more effective interventions," such as school-based clinics that have proved effective for girls, the researchers write. "Intervening early ... can help identify risks to young men's physical and mental health, resulting in a potentially healthier male, partner and father."
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