Teens who go to college are less likely to indulge in risky sexual behaviour in the first six months after completing high school than those who are not enrolled in college in the first place, according to a University of Washington study.
The study, which also compared the risky sexual behaviours of teens living with parents at home and those staying in their own homes could not find any significant differences between the two groups.
"No one has studied the behaviour of teens before because we stop being so concerned about the sexual behaviour of youth after they leave high school. But it is important that we know what they are doing once they leave school, because late adolescence and the early 20s are the peak times for acquiring a sexually transmitted infection," said Jennifer Bailey, a research scientist with the UW's Social Development Research Group and the lead author of the paper.
She added: "HIV is a big risk. Chlamydia can affect fertility. The prevalence of gonorrhea and chlamydia are increasing. And some forms of human papillomavirus are related to cervical and other cancers. So it is important that we know what puts young people at risk for these sexually transmitted infections and what social structures may help protect them."
The study highlighted that college students were more likely to always use a condom and less likely to engage in casual sex or high-risk sex than teens who did not attend a two- or four-year college course.
For the study, they defined casual sex as having sex with someone not considered to be a boyfriend or girlfriend, having sex with someone they had known for less than two weeks, or having more than one sexual partner in the previous month.
On the other hand, the criteria for high-risk sex included casual sex and inconsistent condom use, as well as having sex with a man who had sex with other men or having sex with a partner who was HIV positive or who was an intravenous drug user.
Generally, the study indicated that 23 per cent of the college students reported inconsistent condom use in comparison to 35 per cent of the non-college subjects. Also, 15 per cent of the college students engaged in casual sex as against 29 per cent of the others.
Besides, five per cent of the college students had high-risk sex in comparison to 16 per cent of the others. And 53 per cent of the college students had engaged in sex in the previous month as against 70 per cent of the others.
However, the most unexpected finding was that living at home did not factor when it came to risky sexual behaviour.
"It was surprising to us that there wasn't a protective effect of living at home for risky sexual behaviour. Overall, adolescents who live with parents are less likely to be sexually active, but those who are having sex are just as likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour.
"Generally what students do six months after graduation is what they did in high school. The kids who were engaging in risky sexual behavior in high school will most likely continue to do so. And the kids who were engaging in that kind of behaviour in high school generally are less likely to go to college," said Bailey.
Besides this, the study data also showed that drug and alcohol use in high school was an important contributor to risky sexual behaviour. Those who used drugs, alcohol or marijuana in high school were six times as likely to engage in casual sex and four times as likely to engage in high-risk sex behaviour as non-users.
Bailey said the findings emphasised the need for continuing efforts for HIV and sexually transmitted disease-prevention programmes in the high school and beyond.
The study is published in the latest issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.