, Staff Writer
WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com)–Angela Jefferson is 15. She’s been going to Sunday school and the 11 o’clock morning service all her life. Studies show that what she’s learning may be what it takes to delay her experimentation with sex and drugs.
Researchers in two studies published last month found that teens with strong religious views are less likely to have sex, and those views may lower their rates of cigarette smoking, heavy drinking and marijuana use than those of less religious teens, largely because their religious views lead them to view the consequences of sex and drugs negatively.
“A better understanding of why religious adolescents are less likely to engage in early sexual intercourse may help in designing prevention programs for this behavior,” said Duane Alexander, M.D., director of the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD).
“Those adolescents who viewed religion as a meaningful part of their life and a way to cope with problems were half as likely to use drugs than adolescents who didn’t view religion as important. And this held most true while facing hardships, like having an unemployed parent or being sick themselves,” said Thomas Ashby Wills, Ph.D.
The Add Health Survey of teens and sex, conducted by the NICHD, found that religion reduces the likelihood of adolescents engaging in early sex by shaping their attitudes and beliefs about sexual activity.
The study also found that parents’ religious beliefs toward sex did not directly influence teens’ decisions to have sex. Instead, parents’ personal attitudes toward sex seemed to influence their teens’ own attitudes toward sex, and indirectly, their teens’ behavior.
When teens do have sex, their beliefs about the consequences of sexual activity become more permissive–meaning more positive or favorable–but their religious views do not change.
In particular, adolescent girls who had sex reported that they were more positive about having sex in the future. However, the greatest predictor of whether teens would have sex–regardless of their religious views or attitudes–was whether or not they were dating.
Miss Jefferson has friends that are having sex, but she abstains. “I’m just not ready. My friends have told me all about it and I’ve heard some of the things boys say about girls, too, and I just don’t want my name talked about like that.
“Going to church has helped me understand the need for values and morals. I don’t get that in school but I can at church. I like going to church because it keeps me involved in something very positive,” she said.
Sexual intercourse places teens at risk for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and unintended pregnancy. The information provided by the study gives insight to health researchers and planners devising teen abstinence programs.
Previous studies have found that strength of religious beliefs and participation in religious activities are more important than religious denomination in predicting whether a teenager has sex.
This study used information from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a comprehensive survey of 90,000 seventh through 12th graders. The survey measured the effects of family, peer group, school, neighborhood, religious institution and community on behaviors that promote good health.
Researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York found that the perceived importance of religion was particularly important for teens that were facing a lot of life stressors.
This is known as a “buffering effect,” from the concept that something about religiosity serves to buffer the impact of adverse circumstances, according to the researchers. The effect of religiosity was not limited by ethnicity, as comparable effects were for adolescents from all of the ethnic groups in the study (Black Americans, Hispanics and Caucasians).
However, Dr. Wills told The Final Call that Black teens had higher scores in religiosity than the White or Hispanic teens.
From a sample of 1,182 adolescents ranging in ages from 12-16 in the metropolitan area who were surveyed on four different occasions from seventh grade through 10th grade, the authors tracked the adolescents’ drinking, cigarette smoking, marijuana use and perception of religion through early to late adolescence.
This enabled the authors to take into account developmental changes that occur during these ages that might influence drug use. Importance of religion was determined by responses to simple questions such as, “To be able to rely on religious teachings when you have a problem,” or “To be able to turn to prayer when you’re facing a personal problem.” Participants rated each question on a scale from “Not at all important” to “Very important.”
“These buffering effects could be occurring,” said Dr. Wills, “because religiosity may influence a person’s attitudes and values, providing meaning and purpose in life. It could also help persons to view problems in a different way.”
“Besides offering coping techniques, being involved with a religion can also create more healthy social networks than adolescents would have if they got involved with drugs to find social outlets,” he said.