A Developmental Neuroscience Approach to Sex Education for Adolescents

Suleiman, A. B., & Brindis, C. D. (2014). Adolescent school-based sex education: Using developmental neuroscience to guide new directions for policy and practice. Sexuality Research and Social Policy. Advance online publication. doi:10.1007/s13178-014-0147-8

High rates of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among American teens have cast doubt on the effectiveness of current models of sex education in the schools. Suleiman and Brindis (2014) suggested that these models view sexual behavior as the result of a rational decision making process and ignore emotional and motivational factors. They draw on recent research in developmental neuroscience to provide strategies for re-thinking the sex education curriculum. These authors note that the adolescent lateral prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex impedes impulse control and the immature limbic system may lead to increased reward-seeking and sensation-seeking behavior. These qualities appear to be enhanced, in the adolescent, in emotionally charged situations and by the presence of peers. This may be why the explicit plans and intentions developed during the more affectively neutral context of sex education classes may not correspond to adolescents’ actual behavior. In addition, adolescents’ lack of experience with sexual situations may overload working memory capacity and make it more difficult for them to use information effectively. This results in putting greater weight on short-term outcomes (physical pleasure and intimacy) than long-term outcomes (risk of pregnancy and STIs). Suleiman and Brindis proposed a number of strategies for sex education based on these findings from adolescent neuroscience, including (1) develop curricula that provide the “gist” of health protective thinking, such as “better safe than sorry,” so that adolescents may be able to process information more effectively than when they rely on retrieving detailed material from sex education classes; (2) provide adolescents with opportunities to explore the emotional weights associated with different behavioral choices and the circumstances under which their health-protective intentions may be challenged; and (3) use fMRI data to evaluate the impact of different sex education curricula. This study provides an example of the importance of neuroscience research in developing policy to address adolescent behavior.

Making Connections

Working memory

Media Supplement

This NPR Youth Radio segment explores the disconnect between the timing of sex education classes and the younger ages at which children are entering puberty. [5 min 15 sec]

This entry was posted in Life Span Development, Neuroscience, Youth.