Wellesley Centers for Women Study Shows Planned Parenthood Program Can Change Sexual Behavior in Young Teens

October 21, 2014
three tweens outside school

A new study from the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) has added strong evidence to the argument that, by talking early and talking often about sex, parents can make a real difference in their teen’s lives.

The multi-year study led by WCW Senior Research Scientists Sumru Erkut and Jennifer Grossman was conducted in partnership with Planned Parenthood. The researchers reviewed Planned Parenthood’s Get Real program, which is targeted toward middle school students, and found that the program is effective in changing sexual behavior among its target audience.

“A large body of research shows that teens who have sex at an early age are more likely to have poor education and health outcomes than teens who delay sex until they’re older, such as dropping out of school, getting an STI, or having an unintended pregnancy,” says Grossman. “Research tells us that it is important for teens to learn about sexual issues before they have sex. Middle school sex education programs can address this issue, but few have shown effectiveness in delaying sex for boys and girls.”

According to the project website, Get Real delivers medically accurate, age-appropriate information and emphasizes healthy relationship skills and family involvement through classroom lessons and corresponding take-home activities. The lessons and assignments are designed to start dialogue between the student and their parents or caregivers.

The WCW study included 24 schools in the Boston area and more than 2,000 students, and spanned a three-year period. The researchers randomly assigned half of the participating schools to the intervention group and half to a comparison group. Schools in the intervention group received the Get Real curriculum in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade.

The researchers found that Get Real is one of only a few middle school programs that reduces risky sexual behavior for both boys and girls; 16 percent fewer boys and 15 percent fewer girls had sex compared to their peers who did not take part in Get Real. Family involvement through the program showed an added effect for boys in particular.

“To understand this finding, we can look to research on how parents talk with their daughters and sons about sex—parents tend to talk earlier and more frequently with their daughters than their sons,” Grossman said. “It may be that the sixth-grade family activities encouraged parents to begin discussing sexual issues with their sons earlier and more often than they would have otherwise, which could be the critical factor for delaying sex.”

The study findings, according to Leslie Kantor, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, “add to a growing body of evidence that family communication is critical to young people's decision-making and health, and that it's important that communication begins before a teen becomes sexually active and continues throughout adolescence.”

Get Real is currently taught in 150 schools in Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Texas. Planned Parenthood representatives, here quoted by Time Magazine, said they hope the program’s success can be replicated on a larger national scale.

Read the study, "Protective Effects of Middle School Comprehensive Sex Education With Family Involvement," in the Journal of School Health.