Risky sexual behavior among adolescents: The role of decision-making, problems from cannabis use and externalizing disorder symptoms

During adolescence, people exhibit a higher propensity for risk-taking behaviors, including risky sexual behaviors (RSB), which are sexual behaviors that can directly lead to STIs or unplanned pregnancies. Previous research has demonstrated that externalizing disorders – the most commonly known of which are ADHD and antisocial personality disorders – cannabis use problems, and poor decision-making abilities each independently predict RSB. However, how these factors interact and influence RSB particularly in adolescents is a crucial topic not yet well understood.

Scientists at the Institute for Behavioral Genetics, University of Colorado recently conducted a study on a group of over 200 teens to address this gap. As predicted, they found that a greater number of symptoms of externalizing disorders, more problems with cannabis use, and more risk taking behavior are all positively correlated with higher likelihood of RSB. More interestingly, decision making and externalizing symptoms mediates the correlation between cannabis use and RSB. This means among teenagers who make more risky decisions or exhibit externalizing symptoms in psychological tests, cannabis use problems predict later engagement in RSB very accurately, but this correlation is not true among those who don’t. Based on these findings, the authors suggested that treatment and prevention approaches to reduce RSB among adolescents would benefit from techniques to improve decision-making skills, as well as identification and management of externalizing symptoms.


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