Numerous social marketing campaigns exhort parents to talk to their children about sexual abstinence, pregnancy risk, and sexually transmitted disease prevention. The effectiveness of these conversations is difficult to ascertain if parents are more likely to broach discussions related to sexual activity with adolescents who have greater propensities to engage in these risky behaviors. Our baseline empirical results indicate that female adolescents whose mothers communicate more about sex are more likely to have sexual intercourse, practice unsafe sex, and engage in casual sex. However, once we control for the adolescent’s environment and peers through the use of school fixed effects and for the daughter’s own propensity to engage in such behaviors through a rich set of adolescent-specific covariates, the effect of a mother’s talk on her daughter’s behavior is reduced dramatically indicating that mother’s talk is endogenous to the daughter’s sexual behavior. Models employing sister fixed effects to control for family-level unobservables, although imprecisely estimated, confirm this finding.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
These campaigns are not dissimilar from long-standing social marketing campaigns like The Partnership for a Drug Free America’s TimeToTalk initiative aimed at adolescent substance use or a newer campaign by Children Now which encourages parents to address a range of topics from terrorism to HIV and to “talk to your kids before everyone else does.”.
Unfortunately, although we would have liked to include data on other types of sexual activity including anal and oral sex, the AddHealth did not collect data on anal sex until wave 2 (and then only for girls who are in a relationship) and did not collect data on oral sex until wave 3 (at which time the respondents are young adults). Given that our primary variable of interest is mother’s talk about sex, which is only measured at wave 1, we must limit our analyses to vaginal sexual intercourse except in the case of casual sex where the survey question does not distinguish between sexual activity generally and intercourse specifically.
While Oettinger does not focus on STDs, social, or moral consequences of sexual activity, we can easily extend his framework to incorporate information regarding STD prevention, the costs of contracting an STD or incurring social stigma, and the probability of such outcomes.
Oettinger also empirically tests his theory, using sibling pairs to identify the effect of sex education, and finds that sex education in the 1970s had some effect on teen outcomes through “risk altering” information.
Trenholm et al. (2008) use data from an abstinence-only education experiment and find some indication of greater awareness and knowledge about STDs, condoms, and birth control. However, they uncover no significant impact of the same program on adolescent behaviors including sexual activity and unprotected sex or outcomes like teen pregnancy, giving birth, and STD diagnosis, Conversely, Cannonier (2012) finds a significant effect at the state-level on teen childbirth rates with increased funding for abstinence education.
From the 20,745 respondents in wave one of the AddHealth, we drop those without a valid sample weight (1,821), males (9,290) as well as adolescents whose parent survey was completed by someone other than a biological mother (2,440). We limit our analyses to those aged 14–18 (dropping 1,255). We eliminated others for missing key variables including having had sex (44), the measures of maternal talk about sex (135), mother’s age at first birth (1,764), and missing values on other covariates (813). Since we use school fixed effects in many of our models, we also eliminated one adolescent because she was the only respondent in her school. Rather than eliminating respondents who are missing income data, we impute income and include a binary variable in the models to indicate these observations. We are left with 3,182 female adolescents in 129 schools.
A table of means for each sample is available upon request.
These variables include indicators that the mother allows the daughter to decide her curfew, who to hang out with, what to wear, how much TV to watch, weeknight bedtime, and what to eat as well as indicators that the mother never drinks, feels it is most important that her daughter is well behaved and indicators that a parent supervises the daughter before school, after school, and before bed.
More details on construction of the index are available upon request.
All three of these indexes, also constructed using the alpha command in Stata, are included in any model containing daughter characteristics.
The full set of questions for this index is available from the authors upon request.
The positive correlation between talk and adolescent sexual activity corroborates the findings of Khurana and Cooksey (2012) which, like these baseline models, do not deal with the endogeneity of parental talk.
These full models are available from the authors upon request.
One advantage of the talk indexes we construct, in that they are continuous, is we get more leverage out of our small sisters sample than we would, for example, with dichotomous measures of talk.
While their final results indicate that substance use may not be causally related to adolescent sexual intercourse, they find a positive correlation in models that do not account for the endogeneity of these behaviors.
Following the advice of Murray (2006), we include a large set of independent variables, in both the first and second stage of our 2SLS models to reduce the potential that our instruments are mediating the effects of other unobserved factors that influence adolescent sexual behavior.
Aizer, A. (2004). Home alone: Supervision after school and child behavior. Journal of Public Economics, 88, 1835–1848.
Ali, M., & Dwyer, D. (2011). Estimating peer effects in sexual behavior among adolescents. Journal of Adolescence, 34, 183–190.
Amato, P., & Fowler, F. (2002). Parenting practices, child adjustment, and family diversity. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64, 703–716.
Amato, P., & Rivera, F. (1999). Paternal involvement and children’s behavior problems. Journal of Marriage & Family, 61, 375–384.
Argys, L., Rees, D., Averett, S., & Witoonchart, B. (2006). Birth order and risky adolescent behavior. Economic Inquiry, 44, 215–233.
Averett, S., Argys, L., & Rees, D. (2011). Older siblings and adolescent risky behavior: Does parenting play a role? Journal of Population Economics, 24, 957–978.
Averett, S. L., & Wang, Y. (2012). Identification of the effect of depression on risky sexual behavior: Exploiting a natural experiment. The American Economic Review, 102(3), 570–574.
Bernstein, E. (2011). To skip the “Talk,” Have an ongoing dialogue. Wall Street Journal. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204358004577032421571545382.html. Accessed Dec 1, 2011.
Blake, S., Simkin, L., Ledsky, R., Perkins, C., & Calabrese, J. (2001). Effects of a parent-child communications intervention on young adolescents’ risk for early onset of sexual intercourse. Family Planning Perspectives, 33(2), 52–61.
Browning, C., Leventha, T., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2005). Sexual initiation in early adolescence: The nexus of parental and community control. American Sociological Review, 70, 758–778.
Cannonier, C. (2012). State abstinence education programs and teen birth rates in the US. Review of Economics of the Household, 10, 53–75.
Centers for Disease Control. (2010). Press release, March 11, 2008. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/stdconference/2008/press/release-11march2008.htm.
Centers for Disease Control. (2011). http://www.cdc.gov/Features/dsTeenPregnancy/. Accessed May 15, 2012.
Finer, L. (2010). Unintended pregnancy among U.S. adolescents: Accounting for sexual activity. Journal of Adolescent Health. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2010.02.002.
Fletcher, J. (2009). Social interactions and smoking decisions: Evidence using multiple cohorts, instrumental variables, and school fixed effects. Health Economics, 19, 466–484.
Fletcher, J. (2010). Adolescent depression and educational attainment: Results using sibling fixed effects. Health Economics, 19(7), 855–871.
Fletcher, A., Darling, N., & Steinberg, L. (1995). Parental monitoring and peer influences on adolescent substance use. In J. McCord (Ed.), Coercion and punishment in long-term perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Gaviria, A., & Raphael, S. (2001). School-based peer effects on juvenile behavior. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 83, 257–268.
Grossman, M., Kaestner, R., & Markowitz, S. (2004). Get high and get stupid: The effect of alcohol and marijuana use on teen sexual behavior. Review of Economics of the Household, 2, 413–441.
Hamilton, B., & Ventura, S. (2012). Birth rates for US teenagers reach historic lows for all age and ethnic groups. National Center for Health Statistics Data Brief, 89, 1–8.
Kawaguchi, D. (2004). Peer effects on substance use among American teenagers. Journal of Population Economics, 17(2), 351–367.
Khurana, A., & Cooksey, E. (2012). Examining the effect of maternal sexual communication and adolescent’s perceptions of maternal disapproval on adolescent sexual involvement. Journal of Adolescent Health, 51(6), 557–565.
Kohn, J. (2012). What is health? A multiple correspondence health index. Eastern Economic Journal, 38(2), 223–250.
Landry, DJ., & Turnbull, W. (1997). Issues in brief: Sexually transmitted diseases hamper development efforts. Available at: http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/ib_std.html.
Lindberg, L., Santelli, J., & Susheela, S. (2006). Changes in formal sex education: 1995–2002. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 38(4), 182–189.
Manlove, J., Ikramullah, E., Mincieli, L., Holcombe, E., & Danish, S. (2009). Trends in sexual experience, contraceptive use, and teenage childbearing: 1992–2002. Journal of Adolescent Health, 44, 413–423.
Menning, C., Holtzman, M., & Kapinus, C. (2007). Stepfather involvement and adolescents’ disposition toward having sex. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 39(2), 82–89.
Murray, M. P. (2006). Avoiding invalid instruments and coping with weak instruments. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20, 111–132.
National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. (2011). http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/costs/pdf/counting-it-up/press-release-national.pdf. Accessed May 16, 2012.
Oettinger, G. (1999). The effects of sex education on teen sexual activity and teen pregnancy. The Journal of Political Economy, 107, 606–644.
Radloff, Lenore. (1977). The CES-D Scale: A self-report depression scale for research in the general population. Applied Psychological Measurement, 1, 385–401.
Regnerus, M. (2009). Forbidden fruit sex and religion in the lives of American teenagers. USA: Oxford University Press.
Richardson, J., Radziszewska, B., Dent, C., & Flay, B. (1993). Relationship between after-school care of adolescents and substance use, risk taking, depressed mood, and academic achievement. Pediatrics, 92, 146–148.
Rodgers, J., Rowe, D., & Harris, D. (1992). Sibling differences in adolescent sexual behavior: Inferring process models from family composition patterns. Journal of the Marriage and the Family, 54, 142–152.
Sabia, J. (2006). Does sex education affect adolescent sexual behaviors and health? Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 25(4), 783–802.
Sabia, J., & Rees, D. (2008). The effect of adolescent virginity status on psychological well-being. Journal of Health Economics, 27, 1368–1381.
Sabia, J., & Rees, D. (2011). Boys will be boys: Are there gender differences in the effect of sexual abstinence on schooling? Health Economics, 20(3), 287–305.
Santelli, J., Brener, N., Lowry, R., Bhatt, A., & Zabin, L. (1998). Multiple sexual partners among US adolescents and young adults. Family Planning Perspectives, 30, 271–275.
Swain, C., Ackerman, L., & Ackerman, M. (2006). The influence of individual characteristics and contraceptive beliefs on parent-teen sexual communications: A structural model. Journal of Adolescent Health, 38, 753.e9–753.e18.
Trenholm, C., Devaney, B., Fortson, K., Clark, M., Quay, L., & Wheeler, J. (2008). Impacts of abstinence education on teen sexual activity, risk of pregnancy, and risk of sexually transmitted diseases. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 27(2), 255–276.
Vandell, D. L., & Ramanan, J. (1991). Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth: Choices in after-school care and child development. Developmental Psychology, 27, 637–643.
Vyas, S., & Kumaranayake, L. (2006). Constructing socio-economic status indices: How to use principal components analysis. Health Policy Plan, 21(6), 459–468.
The authors thank Laura Argys, Karen Smith Conway, Jennifer Kohn, David Phillips, Lucie Schmidt and Yang Wang for helpful comments. All errors are our own. This research uses data from Add Health, a program project directed by Kathleen Mullan Harris and designed by J. Richard Udry, Peter S. Bearman, and Kathleen Mullan Harris at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and funded by Grant P01-HD31921 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with cooperative funding from 23 other federal agencies and foundations. Special acknowledgment is due Ronald R. Rindfuss and Barbara Entwisle for assistance in the original design. Information on how to obtain the Add Health data files is available on the Add Health website (http://www.cpc.unc.edu/addhealth). No direct support was received from Grant P01-HD31921 for this analysis.
About this article
Cite this article
Averett, S.L., Estelle, S.M. Will daughters walk mom’s talk? The effects of maternal communication about sex on the sexual behavior of female adolescents. Rev Econ Household 12, 613–639 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11150-013-9192-y
- Maternal sex talk
- Sexual intercourse
- Unsafe sex
- Casual sex