Adolescence is often described as the period in a person’s life where one is no longer a child, yet still not an adult. This period is often seen as exciting, yet also full of confusion, making it a problematic period in one’s life, especially if things are not handled properly. Young people tend to try different things to satisfy their curiosity, taking risks that could put them and their life in jeopardy.
Among the objects of teenage curiosity is sex. Studies show that initiation to sexual activities happens at a very early age, much earlier than it used to. And, compared with non-minority teenagers, adolescents belonging to minority groups tend to start sexual activity at a much younger age and to engage in risky behavior.
Using the social learning theory as a model, this paper attempts to explain why minority young people engage in risky sexual behaviors. Many of the explanations are derived from how the model views people and explains behavior, but where appropriate, study results are also cited to support suggested explanations, especially those study results that coincide with the explanations that could be arrived at using the theory.
Overview of Risky Sexual Behavior of Minority Teens
Adolescence is a period in a person’s life characterized by a high frequency of risk behaviors (Holinger, 1981; Jessor & Jessor, 1977; Zuckerman, 1971; Zuckerman, 1979), the outcomes of many of which are negative (Brooks, 2007). Among the risky behaviors of adolescents which have numerous negative outcomes is unprotected sex.
Various literature shows that the age at which adolescents are initiated into sexual activity is decreasing; meaning, more adolescents experience sexual activity at a much younger age. According to 1998 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, although the average age of sexual debut for teens in the United States is 16, the mean age among youths in inner cities is 13. African American adolescent girls do not only tend to become sexually active earlier than Caucasian or Latina teens but are also more likely to have their sexual debut before age 13 (CDC, 2000).
Belgrave, Marin, and Chambers (2000) argue that early sexual activity is problematic, as young individuals are not yet fully emotionally and cognitively ready for sexual activity and responsible sexual decision making. As a consequence, “younger adolescents are more likely to engage in impulsive sexual behavior, are less likely to use contraception, and are at higher risk for pregnancy and STDs than older adolescents” (Bachanas, et. al., 2002).
Moreover, teens who engage in sexual activities at a very age have increased lifetime risk for STDs and HIV, because they are more likely to have more sexual partners and unprotected sexual contacts than teens start at a later age (Coker et al., 1994; Orr, Beiter, & Ingersoll, 1991; Smith, 1997 cited in Bachanas, et. al, 2002).
CDC data (2000) show that in the US, African American adolescent girls tend to become sexually active much earlier than their Caucasian or Latina counterparts. They are also more likely to have their sexual debut before age 13 than Caucasian teens. As mentioned previously, this is a cause of concern, mainly because individuals who start sex in their early teens are more likely to exhibit risky sexual behavior than those who start at a later age (i.e., late teens or later). They are more likely to be involved in impulsive sexual behavior and less likely to use contraception; hence, they are at more risk for pregnancy and STDs than those who start later (Bachanas, et. al., 2002).
Overview of Acculturation and Its Effects on Teens
When different cultures come into continuous immediate contact, changes happen in the original cultural patterns of either or both groups, resulting in a phenomenon called acculturation.
Acculturation is believed to be a mediating factor in adolescents’ “adaptation to their environment and their adoption of the health risk behaviors of peers from different cultures” (Jayakody, n.d). A study by Blake (2001) on the effect of migration status on adolescent health risks found that although foreign-born adolescents are at lower risk of health problems and risk behaviors compared with adolescents born in their host countries, the protective effect diminishes after three generations.
Yu et. al. (2003), however, found that “adolescents born outside the US, and those born in the US to immigrant parents, are more likely to feel peer pressure to engage in substance use, sexual activity and violence, and to experience less parental support to resist these pressures. Additionally, speaking a language other than English has been associated with a greater risk for health, psychosocial and school risk factors” (Yu et. al, 2003).
According to Chen et. al (1999) and Ebin et. al (2001), high levels of acculturation are associated with earlier onset of risk behaviors including sexual activity, smoking, and substance misuse among Asian-American and foreign-born Latinos.
A Look at the Social Learning Theory
Social learning theory (SLT) or social cognitive theory is a personality theory proposed by Albert Bandura and Richard Walters in 1963. It views people as “neither driven by inner forces nor automatically shaped and controlled by external stimuli… [but are] active agents who exercise some influence over their motivation and actions,” (Bandura, 1986, p. 18, 225) and as “self-organizing, proactive, self-reflecting and self-regulating rather than as reactive organisms shaped and shepherded by environmental forces or driven by concealed inner impulses,” and human processes as “the product of a dynamic interplay of personal, behavioral, and environmental influences,” (Pajares, 2002).
Like the behaviorist theories, the social learning theory likewise takes into account the individual’s beliefs and expectations. It argues, however, that although motivation is influenced by reinforcement and punishment, these factors do not directly cause behavior.
According to the theory, how people respond to situations is deeply influenced by the beliefs that they have about themselves. People are both products and producers of their environments. Although they are influenced by their environment, their perception of themselves and how they interpret their situation greatly shape their behavior. The theory sees humans as having intricate capabilities that differentiate them from other living things and define what makes a human. They have capabilities that help them define their very own unique personality. They can make and understand symbols and find meanings from symbols; they learn, self-regulate, and self-reflect, among other things (Pajares, 2002).
The core concept of the theory is modeling, which can be direct (from live models), symbolic (from books, movies, and television), or synthesized (combining the acts of different models). According to Pervin (1989), modeling can cause new behaviors, facilitate existing behaviors, change inhibitions, and arouse emotions.
Social Learning Theory on Risky Sexual Behavior of Minority Teens
As outlined above, minority teens, especially those by immigrant families who speak a language other than that of the host country, tend to become sexually active at a very early age, and hence tend to engage in risky sexual behaviors.
As also shown above, acculturation plays a very crucial role in this phenomenon. This may be because the process of trying to integrate into the host country gives the minority teens a lot of pressure not only to adapt but also to become accepted. The belief systems they hold are being challenged by those of the host country. Moreover, they may find it’s necessary to try to belong, hence opening themselves to peer pressure, which may result in them engaging in risky sexual behavior.
Let us try to understand the reasons why minority teens engage in risky sexual behavior using social learning theory as a model.
There are many reasons why minority teenagers tend to engage in risky sexual behavior, one of them is that their exposure to a new culture may be having a hard toll on them. They may be exposed to risky behavior, and this, being new to them or being not part of their very own culture, may incline them to imitate these risky behaviors.
The very heart of the social learning theory is modeling as an effective way of learning. Here, it is believed that people learn behavior through modeling and imitation. When a certain behavior is modeled to an individual, and that behavior is reinforced, the individual learns it. Although the theory says that learning the behavior need not result in an actual change of behavior, individuals exposed to a certain behavior, especially risky ones, are now more likely to imitate that behavior than those who are not exposed to it, more so if that kind of behavior is reinforced by acceptance in the community if their role models are also into that kind of behavior.
A study done by Millstein and Moscicki (1995) supports this. According to the study, teens who associate with peers who are into risky behaviors are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors.
Drawing on Bandura’s (1986) model, authors of a 1988 study on teenagers’ risky sexual behavior suggested that the interaction between the environment and the teenagers’ cognitive skills play an important role in their sexual behavior. Flora and Thoresen (1988) suggested that risky sexual behavior is a result of insufficient “social cognitive skills,” like the ability to resist pressure from peers. They also pointed out that, although some adolescents rely upon “opinion leaders” for information about sexually transmitted diseases like HIV and AIDS, the opinion leaders were also not reliable, as they did not fare better than non-leaders in the likelihood of using or discussing protection or condom use with their partners.
Low levels of self-efficacy are also possible reasons why minority teenagers engage in risky sexual behavior. According to Bandura (1986) in Pajares (2002), self-efficacy is the perceived ability to cope with specific situations. It is the people’s “judgments of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances (Bandura, 1986).”
Belonging to a minority group may have some negatives effects on the teenagers, such that their self-efficacy is affected negatively. Having poor self-efficacy can hinder anyone from pursuing what they want to attain. People with low self-efficacy tend to avoid activities that they perceive to be beyond their capabilities. They may also not put as much effort as necessary to resist peer pressure, and may not persist when they are faced with obstacles. People with poor self-efficacy may likewise harbor negative feelings and thoughts while performing the tasks they need to do, in this case, fighting off negative peer pressure, hence they give in.
Besides the likelihood that minority teenagers are exposed to an environment that accepts negative behavior, it’s also possible that these teenagers cannot self-regulate. Self-regulation, according to Pervin (1989), involves an individual’s ability to control their behavior rather than mechanically reacting to external influences (Pervin, 1989). If, despite being exposed to bad behavior, these teenagers can self-regulate, meaning, they can process the influences they are exposed to such that they can determine which behavior is good for them and which isn’t, they could have better chances of preventing themselves from imitating the negative influences that are modeled to them. They will also be able to employ adaptive coping strategies.
It has been shown that individuals who are not able to employ adaptive coping strategies such as cognitive and social restructuring and problem-solving tend to engage in risky behaviors than those who can employ good strategies (Laurent, Catanzaro, & Callan, 1997).
Maintenance of behavior, according to social cognitive theory, is by expectancies or anticipated consequences. Individuals set goals for themselves and reward themselves when they can model the behavior with self-praise. But if they fail to model their desire behavior, they reward themselves with guilt.
The theory likewise says that behavior is not regulated by external forces alone; that there is a process of self-reinforcement “through which individuals reward themselves for attaining the standards they set for themselves” (Pervin, 1989). In the case of the teens in question, it may be that they do not have goals that they wish to achieve. Some studies support this. A study by Belgrave et. al (2000) found that youths who have long-term goals and are striving to achieve them are more motivated to avoid engaging in risky sexual activities to avoid their negative side effects such as unwanted pregnancy and STDs.
A recent study at the University of Washington, likewise, found that college students are less likely to be involved in risky sexual activities than teenagers not attending school. In particular, it found that college students are less likely to be involved in inconsistent condom use, less likely to be involved in casual sex, and less likely to get into high-risk sex. Long-term goals, then, are important factors that help teenagers to control themselves from engaging in risky sexual behavior.
Finally, it has been mentioned earlier that minorities, particularly African Americans, tend to have their sexual debut at a very young age. It was also mentioned that this is a point of concern because those who have started sex at a very early age tend to become involved with risky sexual behavior. This is true because social cognition is very important in stopping oneself from being involved in risky behavior. These adolescents tend to start before their cognition is fully developed; hence, they are less able to fight off the pressure to get into a risky behavior (in cases where there is pressure) and are also less able to decide which behavior is risky and which isn’t.
All the factors outlined above work together to entice young minorities to get into risky behavior. These factors may not all be present in individual cases, but each factor may be enough push for very young teenagers, considering their hormonal makeup at this point in their life, the confusion they may be going through, and the additional burdens they may be experiencing as a result of their being a part of a minority group.
In this paper, I have shown a comprehensive overview of how teenagers are about sexual activities. I have cited studies showing that a big percentage of young people become sexually active at a very young age and that this early initiation is one of the reasons why teenagers get into risky sexual behavior, especially among minority youths.
I have likewise shown why young minorities engage in risky sexual behavior, using such concepts in social learning theory as modeling, reinforcement, self-perception, self-regulation, self-efficacy, and goals. These adolescents may be exposed to models of risky sexual behavior, and these risky behaviors may be accepted in the society in which they live, hence reinforcing the behavior.
But while exposure alone could be a great precursor to risky sexual behavior, it may not be enough to make an individual get into it. However, if the adolescent likewise has personal issues like the low perception of self-efficacy, then it may already be enough to prevent the adolescent from resisting the pressure (where present) or the temptation to get into risky sexual activity.
Add to that the fact that these young people may not yet have a fully developed social cognition, preventing them from making sound decisions. As a study has shown, adolescents tend to underestimate the consequences of risky behaviors. Reyna and Farley (2006) show that adolescents are inexperienced with negative consequences (of their behavior); as such, they tend to imagine that the consequences of their behavior are “not that bad” (Reyna & Farley, 2006, p.6). This kind of thinking gives them the courage to get into risky behaviors, which they may later regret.
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