May 15 (HealthDay News) -- New research suggests that family togetherness can be a tool to prevent teens from engaging in risky sexual behavior and provides surprising insight into the role played by fathers when they discover their teens are sexually active.
Contrary to previous evidence that suggested parents detach when they realize their teens have sex lives, researchers found that dads actually start paying more attention. "When adolescents increased their risky sexual activities, fathers became more knowledgeable about their children's activities and friends," said study author Rebekah Levine Coley. "This suggests that fathers may be making more of an effort to be engaged with their youth to try to stem their risky behaviors."
It's not clear, however, whether more active fathering actually helps teens avoid risky behavior, said Coley, an associate professor of applied developmental and educational psychology at Boston College.
Despite decades of efforts to convince teenagers to abstain from sex, an estimated one-fourth of adolescents have had sexual intercourse by the age of 15, and that number grows to two-thirds by 18.
Researchers in the sociology field generally view sexual activity by teens as undesirable and risky. As the new study says, sexual intercourse in adolescents carries "numerous potential repercussions" such as pregnancy and disease.
The study authors examined an ongoing survey of young people that began in 1997. The researchers focused on 3,206 adolescents and their families.
The findings appear in the May/June issue of Child Development.
The researchers found that children were less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior if their families engaged in activities together. The activities included things like eating dinner together, going to church, playing sports and games, and going to the movies, Coley said.
"The time the parents spend with their children engaging in everyday activities can provide very important opportunities for meaningful relationships and communication between parents and children," she said. This helps parents to "create shared values and ideas and keep tabs on what their children are doing and what they're up to."
Still, the research doesn't prove that more family togetherness directly leads to less risky sexual behavior.
While previous research has suggested that parents of sexually active teens become "less engaged, less effective parents," the new findings don't show that, at least in regard to fathers, Coley said.
Freya L. Sonenstein, director of the Center for Adolescent Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said the study was well-done and provides new information about the role of fathers.
In the bigger picture, "the results demonstrate again that parents and families matter for adolescents, and that maintaining or increasing family activities may potentially lower the likelihood of teens engaging in sexual risk behaviors," she said.
But, she said, the findings only apply to families with two parents in the household because the researchers didn't look at one-parent households.
SOURCES: Rebekah Levine Coley, Ph.D., associate professor, applied developmental and educational psychology, Boston College; Freya L. Sonenstein, Ph.D., professor and director, Center for Adolescent Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore; May/June 2009 Child Development