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Prev Sci. 2003 Mar;4(1):39-53.

Feelings about risk and the epidemic diffusion of adolescent sexual behavior.

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Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-6220, USA.


Rapid initiation of sexual risk behavior in adolescents can be explained by diffusion processes similar to those used to model epidemics. These models suggest that novel behavior can spread to all individuals exposed to the behavior. An alternative interpretation places greater emphasis on developmental changes in feelings toward risk behavior that can explain or limit the diffusion process. This research examined the initiation of sexual behavior in adolescents living in high-poverty urban environments. A cross-section of African American youth (N = 355) ages 9-17 living in public housing were interviewed using privacy-enhancing "talking computers." Sexual risk behavior (unprotected sexual intercourse) was assessed along with perceived sexual behavior of friends and personal feelings about sexual intercourse and condom use. Age trends in both peer-group perceptions and personal feelings displayed increasing attraction toward risky sex. Diffusion processes were strongly related to sexual initiation and condom use even after controlling for changes in personal feelings. Nevertheless, feelings toward sexual risk behavior moderated the diffusion process. Adolescents with less favorable feelings toward sex were less susceptible to the diffusion of sexual initiation and those with more favorable feelings toward condoms were more likely to use them consistently. Interventions that focus on adolescents' feelings toward risk behavior can help to limit the diffusion of risk behavior in high-risk urban environments.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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