Objective. Interventions to reduce high-risk behaviors such as sex and substance use among youths have focused mainly on promoting abstinence, refusal skills, and negotiation skills, yet the frequency of high-risk behaviors among youths may also be influenced by opportunity, particularly the amount of time during which they are not supervised by adults. In this study, we examined when and where youths have sex and whether there is a relationship between unsupervised time and sex, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and substance use.
Methods. A cross-sectional survey was conducted in 6 public high schools in an urban school district. Participants were 1065 boys and 969 girls from a school-based STD screening program. Ninety-eight percent of students were black, and 79% were in the free or reduced lunch program. Most students reported living with 1 parent only, primarily the mother (52%); only 27% lived in 2-parent families. Sexual activity, substance use, and the prevalence of gonorrhea or chlamydia as determined by a ligase-chain reaction test on a urine sample were measured.
Results. Fifty-six percent reported being home without an adult present 4 or more hours per day after school. There was no difference in the number of unsupervised after-school hours between children in 1- and 2-parent families. Fifty-five percent of boys and 41% of girls were participating in or planned to participate in after-school activities during the school year. Boys were more likely than girls to report having had sex for the first time before age 14 (42% vs 9%) and had a greater number of lifetime sex partners (mean: 4.2 vs 2.4 partners). Among the respondents who had had intercourse, 91% said that the last time had been in a home setting, including their own home (37%), their partner’s home (43%), and a friend’s home (12%), usually after school. Boys were more likely than girls to report having had sex in their own homes (43% vs 28%) and less likely than girls to report having had sex in their partner’s homes (30% vs 59%). Fifty-six percent of youths who had had intercourse reported that the last time was on a weekday: 18% before 3:00 PM, 17% between 3:00 and 6:00 PM, and 21% after 6:00 PM. There were no gender differences in the day of the week or time of day during which students reported having had intercourse. Youths who were unsupervised for 30 or more hours per week were more likely to be sexually active compared with those who were unsupervised for 5 hours a week or less (80% vs 68%). In addition, for boys, the greater the amount of unsupervised time, the higher the number of lifetime sex partners. Among girls but not among boys, sexual activity was associated with nonparticipation in after-school programs; 71% of those who were not participating in an after-school activity were sexually active compared with 59% of those who were participating. Tobacco and alcohol use were associated with unsupervised time among boys but not among girls. Boys who were unsupervised >5 hours per week after school were twice as likely to have gonorrhea or chlamydial infection as boys who were unsupervised for 5 hours or less.
Conclusions. We found that substantial numbers of youths currently spend long periods of time without adult supervision and have limited opportunities to participate in after-school activities. More than half of sexually active youths reported that they had sex at home after school, and, particularly for boys, sexual-and drug-related risks increased as the amount of unsupervised time increased. As youths come of age, parents probably believe that it is appropriate to leave them increasingly on their own, and, accordingly, prevention approaches have concentrated on providing information and motivation for abstinence or safer sex. However, given the independent association between the amount of unsupervised time and sexual behaviors (with STD rates suggestive of particularly risky sexual behaviors) and substance use behaviors, it is worth considering increasing youth supervision, if not by parents, then by programs organized at school or other community settings. Parents and community members should consider increasing opportunities for supervised activities to determine whether this will reduce risk-taking among youths.