The Link Between Depression and Sexual Activity Among Teenagers

Dating and engaging in romantic relationships is a hallmark of social development for teenagers. With 70% of teenagers being involved in a romantic relationship by the time they finish high school, there is a link between these relationships and psychological distress, with multiple studies indicating higher levels of depression and anxiety among teenagers involved in romantic relationships than those who don't.

A study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 2013[1] argued that adolescents engaged in sexual activity are consistently associated with a high risk for depression. Researchers used data obtained from 1,551 sibling pairs to determine whether dating and sexual intercourse, whether with a romantic or non-romantic partner, and concluded that there is an association between sexual activity and depressive symptoms, correlated with familial factors.

The Correlation Between Dating and Depressive Symptoms

The link between depression and adolescent dating is a rather recent finding, but several studies focused on it. Romantic relationships among teenagers may require sophisticated skills because they are marked by breakups, lability, feelings of rejection, and other psychological challenges. Because individuals have different coping mechanisms, some of them find it difficult to navigate the meanders of adolescent relationships and may be at risk for depression.

A theory known as the "individual differences theory" (Davila, 2008) argues that multiple factors lead to a link between dating and depression, with the most important being variations in personality, interpersonal style, and social history. The likelihood of engaging in a relationship is affected by social competence, levels of neuroticism, and rejection sensitivity.

The strongest association of dating with depressive episodes is noticed in relationships defined by insecure styles of attachment. The attention impairment theory argues that because dating is a time-consuming activity that shifts the focus of the teenager from school, friendships, and family, it can precipitate depressive episodes. The reduced social support and academic difficulties may leave teenagers who are dating susceptible to depression more than those who don't.

Depressive Symptoms in Teenagers Who Engage in Sexual Activity

Studies show that about 65% of teenagers engage in sexual activities during a romantic relationship, and researchers believe that there is a strong correlation between depressive episodes and sexual activity in adolescents.

Researchers don't usually distinguish between sexually active and non-sexually active dating relationships. Nevertheless, being sexually active as a teenager comes with an entire set of worries, ranging from sexually transmitted diseases to risks of pregnancy, which are exacerbated if the teenagers are in a non-romantic sexual relationship.

Adolescents are less likely to use contraceptives, including condoms, in a non-romantic sexual relationship. Substance abuse often coincides with non-romantic sex, and the consequences of having non-romantic sex are likely to contribute to the onset or aggravation of depression.

Genetic Influences on Adolescent Sexual Behavior

How and when an adolescent becomes sexually active is something that varies significantly from one individual to another. Early sexual activity is generally seen as a problem behavior by policymakers, scientists, and the general public. Researchers have considered genes as a source of individual differences and used this theory to try to understand the causes and developmental impact of adolescent sexual activity.

Mechanisms through which genetics may influence sexual behaviors include testosterone levels, pubertal development, and dopaminergic systems. A growing body of research shows that members of the same family reacted in a similar way to adolescent dating. As such, it can be argued that both genetic and environmental issues can be responsible for the way teenagers react to engaging in romantic and non-romantic dating.

While the association between sexual activity among teenagers and depression is clear, more research is needed to determine whether depression makes teenagers turn to sexual activity to escape their feelings. Furthermore, research has shown that teenagers of both genders who are sexually active are more likely to attempt suicide than those who are not.

Historical studies often associate an earlier age of first intercourse with socially deviant behavior. New studies diverge from that view and research suggests that adolescent sexual intercourse may be the result of various facets of emotion and development in adolescents.

The transition to maturity is a challenging time for teenagers, and those who engage in sexual relationships are more prone to becoming depressed because dating comes with a unique set of challenges that are difficult to navigate at a young age.

  1. Mendle J, Ferrero J, Moore SR, Harden KP. Depression and adolescent sexual activity in romantic and non-romantic relational contexts: a genetically-informative sibling comparison. J Abnorm Psychol. 2013;122(1):51‐63.