BACKGROUND: Engagement in sexual activity is common among adolescents and can be considered part of adolescent development, but it carries potential life-changing consequences.
METHODS: This study examined if clinical and cognitive differences existed between adolescents who engaged in voluntary sexual behavior before age 15, between ages 15 to 18, and after age 18. All participants were part of a larger study examining impulsive behavior in young adults. Participants were assessed on measures including demographics, comorbid psychiatric disorders, and clinical scales and cognitive tasks assessing impulsivity, obsessive-compulsive traits, emotion regulation, depression, anxiety, and quality of life.
RESULTS: Those who engaged in voluntary sexual activity before age 15 were more likely to have increased depression and anxiety symptoms, to score higher on the Yale Brown Obsessive-Compulsive Scale for Pathologic Gambling, and to make poorer decisions on the Cambridge Gambling Task.
CONCLUSIONS: The results of this study suggest that the decision to engage in sexual activity at a young age is not an act of thinking before acting or impatience, but rather a decision to engage in sensation-seeking behavior. This finding carries implications for interventions targeting healthy sexual activity in adolescents.