Teens and sex: The kids aren’t alright—the connection between decreased teen sex and mental health 

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Part 1 of a Natural Womanhood series on teen sex. 

“Fewer American High Schoolers Having Sex Than Ever Before” reads the headline of an article from the Institute for Family Studies. Charles Fain Lehman, the author, calls this a “cause for celebration.” In his article, Lehman cites the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, a biannual survey on a wide-range of topics including sexual activity given to American middle and high schoolers by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the 2019 survey, fewer than 40% of high schoolers had ever had sexual intercourse. In the 2021 survey, that figure had dropped even lower, to a mere 30%. These numbers are a major drop from the 54% of teens in 1991 who said they’d participated in sexual intercourse. 

Is this indeed a cause for celebration? In many ways, yes. Teenagers who partake in sexual activities from a younger age will experience more negative mental health outcomes than those who wait, and the idea of a more responsible teenage generation is certainly a heartening one [1]. Waiting to have sex also means avoiding pregnancy out of wedlock, which is a proven step in the Success Sequence to attain economic mobility and long-term personal success. The drop in teen pregnancy rates in recent decades can attest to this. 

However, by the metrics of mental health and outlooks on the world around them, it does not appear that all is well in Generation Z. Though the decrease in sexual activity is largely a boon for teens and their long-term success, it doesn’t tell the full story.  

The reasons for increased teen abstinence aren’t necessarily good reasons  

It’s not just teens having less sex. Recent studies like this one show that people in general are less sexually active now than ever before [2]. Study author Professor Debbie Herbenick of Indiana University discussed why she thinks teens specifically are a part of this decrease in sexuality in recent decades. In an interview with Scientific American, she pointed to technology as the primary driver behind this shift: “for young people, computer games, increasing social media use, video games—something is replacing that time [that would otherwise be spent on sex].” 

Experts like Abigail Karlin-Resnick, an executive director of a non-profit aimed at reducing teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease (STD) rates, concur. She noted that teens are “so focused on their technology, they’re not developing really important social skills about how to interact with each other, totally aside from sexual activity.”

Teens don’t just have less sex, they also have fewer friendships

Teens spend, on average, up to 9 hours a day using screens (yes, you read that right). It’s not difficult to imagine that all of that screen time would decrease opportunities for them to form the kinds of relationships that might lead to sex. Teens also aren’t dating like they used to, as more of their world is centered on the screen in their hands rather than the peers surrounding them. All of this heavy technology use leads to kids who are eschewing not only dating and sex, but also friendships. Instead of their high school years being spent forming real life friendships and developing socially at school or extracurriculars, teenagers spend most of their time in the digital world. 

Teen abstinence comes with real mental health benefits

This trend of decreased teen sexual activity is a true double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is fantastic news that teenagers are waiting longer to have sex. Teenagers often feel both regret and guilt when they engage in sex, especially when it’s in a relationship that doesn’t last. In fact, having casual sex can lead to suicidal ideation and greatly lower self-esteem, studies report [3]. These negative effects can even last into adulthood, as John Morris, psychology researcher at Ohio State University found in a study on adolescent sexuality. “Having a sexual experience during this time, early in life, is not without consequence,” he said. 

Teen sex is hardest on female mental health

Those consequences are especially substantial for girls, as having sexual intercourse in the teen years increases their rates of both depression and anxiety [1]. Due to the hormonal release in the female brain after sex, women experience intense bonding with their sexual partners that makes a later break-up (or morning after the hookup) emotionally devastating. For these reasons, it is a hugely positive sign that teenagers are less sexually active now than in years prior. 

Teen mental health issues are increasing despite fewer sexual encounters—why?

On the other hand, rates of mental health issues like anxiety and depression are currently increasing for youth at an alarming rate. This is despite the decrease in teen sex, which can cause negative mental health outcomes. Instances of diagnosed depression in teens nearly doubled between 2009 and 2019 [4]. The COVID years are said to have worsened the mental health of teenagers even further. What’s going on here? The most likely answer: The other ways teens spend their time still cause mental health problems. 

Although it’s difficult to say with absolute certainty the cause of the tidal wave of depression and anxiety plowing through Gen-Z, it’s probably the most obvious answer: technology. Psychologist Jean Twenge from San Diego State University wrote for The Atlantic that she’s “never seen anything like it” during her work researching generational mental health metrics for teens and college students. This is due to the simple fact that this generation is spending its time radically differently than all those before it. Even compared to Millennials, Gen Z-ers spend more of their lives online than any other generational cohort. Spending more time on the internet is proven to decrease life satisfaction, creating a “nuclear bomb on teen social life” according to another analyst [5]. 

One particularly devastating cause of decreased teen sex is increased internet pornography

Of course, not all internet activity is created equal. A recent study of 13 to 17 year olds by Common Sense Media discovered that nearly half of teens watched porn intentionally [1]. 71% of those said that they’d viewed porn in the past week, which indicates a regular habit. Due to the brain-altering effects of pornography that create loneliness and addiction, and harm relationships, it’s no wonder that young people exposed to porn from an early age (12 years old, on average) are regularly turning to the quick dopamine fix they find in porn rather than forming lasting friendships with peers [1]. 

The bottom line

Yes, lower rates of teen sexual activity mean lower rates of teen pregnancy, and fewer mental health problems directly attributable to early sexual activity. But the reasons teens are having less sex aren’t good ones. We aren’t seeing a generation of young people that have, by and large, decided that abstinence is a worthwhile choice—we just have a generation that would rather be on TikTok than ask out the cute girl in their English class. In part II, I’ll cover how Generation Z can form a healthy appreciation of sex that leads to long-term personal success and fulfillment. 

Find part II, “Teens and sex: Saving a generation—how the Success Sequence can help Gen Z can experience long-term success and fulfillment,” here.


[1] Wesche R, Kreager DA, Lefkowitz ES, Siennick SE. Early Sexual Initiation and Mental Health: A Fleeting Association or Enduring Change? J Res Adolesc. 2017 Sep;27(3):611-627. doi: 10.1111/jora.12303. Epub 2017 Feb 10. PMID: 28776829; PMCID: PMC5546176.

[2] Herbenick, D., Rosenberg, M., Golzarri-Arroyo, L. et al. Changes in Penile-Vaginal Intercourse Frequency and Sexual Repertoire from 2009 to 2018: Findings from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior. Arch Sex Behav 51, 1419–1433 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-021-02125-2

[3] Dubé S, Lavoie F, Blais M, Hébert M. Consequences of Casual Sex Relationships and Experiences on Adolescents’ Psychological Well-Being: A Prospective Study. J Sex Res. 2017 Oct;54(8):1006-1017. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2016.1255874. Epub 2016 Dec 23. PMID: 28010123; PMCID: PMC5731847.

[4] Wilson S, Dumornay NM. Rising Rates of Adolescent Depression in the United States: Challenges and Opportunities in the 2020s. J Adolesc Health. 2022 Mar;70(3):354-355. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2021.12.003. PMID: 35183317; PMCID: PMC8868033.

[5] Orben, A., Przybylski, A.K., Blakemore, SJ. et al. Windows of developmental sensitivity to social media. Nat Commun 13, 1649 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-29296-3


Comments 1

  1. I also would like to find out what is classified as ‘teen sex’? Some surveys do not include behavior such as oral sex. I see many PP, Teen Vogue magazine, and social media promoting anal sex to girls. Is this included?

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Teens and sex: Rescuing a generation—how abstinence and the Success Sequence can help Gen Z experience long-term success and fulfillment
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Part 2 of a Natural Womanhood series on teen sex

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