Ivy League researchers released a huge report on teen sex. It's a must-read for parents.

"It may be the most important thing we do in life; learn how to love and be loved."

At least, that's according to Harvard psychologist and researcher Rick Weissbourd.

He's been collecting data on the sex and love habits of young people for years through surveys, interviews, and even informal conversation — with teens and the important people in their lives.


Teens at prom. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Through it all, one thing has been abundantly clear:

"We spend enormous amount of attention helping parents prepare their kids for work and school," Weissbourd says. "We do almost nothing to prepare them for the tender, tough, subtle, generous, focused work of developing mature healthy relationships. I'm troubled by that."

Now he and his team have finally compiled five years of intense research that asks the question, "What do young people really think about sex and love?"

And maybe just as important: "How should we be preparing them?"

Here are three major takeaways from the groundbreaking new report:

1. Hookup culture might just be a big ol' myth.

Everybody's hooking up with everybody these days, right? Not so fast.

The Harvard report presents a startling statistic from a related study in 2008. A group of college students in the U.S. were asked what percentage of guys on campus they thought had sex on any given weekend. They guessed about 80%. The reality? As low as 5%.

Weissbourd notes that because hookups are so culturally visible (especially in college) and gossiped about, it creates a perception that they're a lot more common than they actually are.

The Harvard study itself found, in fact, that most young people are a lot more interested in sex within a committed relationship or, shockingly(!), things that don't involve sex at all.

People in 2017: These teens are out of control! People in 1964: These teens are out of control! Photo by John Pratt/Getty Images.

What it means for parents: We as adults, unfortunately, play a big role in this pervasive and harmful myth. "In every era there've been complaints about how sexually out of control kids are," Weissbourd says. "It's a story adults really love to tell."

When we play up this stereotype, the study finds it can actually make young people less likely to seek advice or to talk about sex and relationships because they may feel inadequate or embarrassed about their lack of experience.

2. Sexual harassment and assault, however, remain huge, unaddressed problems.

"There are a significant number of young men out there who think that all they can't do is rape someone," Weissbourd says. "They can't drag someone in an alley to rape them."

What many of them have very little concept of, he says, is how harmful and dangerous behaviors like catcalling, pressuring, and coercion can be.

Catcalling is ugly. A cat making a call is very cute. Photo by Susan Schiff Faludi/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

The study cites endless instances of girls being harassed at school, complaining to administration, staging walkouts; anything to get the problem addressed. But the "boys will be boys" attitude persists, and problems are often swept under the rug rather than tackled head-on.

A culture of sexual violence is harmful for obvious reasons, but the report also found these kinds of attitudes can bleed over into relationships that can "disproportionately involve females servicing males."

What it means for parents: Talk. to. your. kids. about. consent.

"I was really surprised how many parents had not had basic conversations with their kids about things like consent, or how to avoid sexually harassing a person," Weissbourd says.

We have to make it crystal clear to young people what kinds of behavior are and aren't acceptable, and follow up those lines with real consequences. It's the only way things are ever going to change.

3. Teens and young adults want more guidance than we're giving them.

Most parents aren't thrilled about having "the talk," and admittedly, bringing up the topic of sex with a teen is no easy task.

But with all this dread and hand-wringing over how to talk about the birds and the bees, the Harvard report notes that many parents are overlooking a much bigger topic: love and relationships.

Roughly 70% of surveyed young adults reported wishing they had received more or better guidance on the emotional aspects of relationships, both from parents or from health class. But it's not just a hindsight thing.

Many parents are overlooking a much bigger topic: love and relationships.

"The percentage of young people who want guidance on romantic relationships was encouraging," Weissbourd says. "Kids light up when they are talking about love and what love is and what does it mean. That was surprising and really encouraging."

What it means for parents: When you're done teaching your teenager how to put a condom on a banana, make sure to spend some time talking about the day-to-day work that goes into building a healthy relationship.

That means going beyond platitudes. The Harvard team suggests diving into more complex questions like, What’s the difference between attraction, infatuation, and love? How can we be more attracted to people the less interested they are in us? Why can we be attracted to people who are unhealthy for us?

Those are questions some of us might not even have the answer to, but having the honest conversation with our kids is a major step in helping them learn how to love and be loved.

As Weissbourd says, it's one of the most important things we'll ever do.

The full report tackles even more and is jam-packed with must-know findings and statistics. It's definitely worth a read.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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Researchers at Harvard University have studied the connection between spanking and kids' brain development for the first time, and their findings echo what studies have indicated for years: Spanking isn't good for children.

Comments on this article will no doubt be filled with people who a) say they were spanked and "turned out fine" or b) say that the reason kids are [fill in the blank with some societal ill] these days are because they aren't spanked. However, a growing body of research points to spanking creating more problems than it solves.

"We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and other mental health problems, but many people don't think about spanking as a form of violence," said Katie A. McLaughlin, director of the Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, and the senior researcher on the study which was published Friday in the journal Child Development. "In this study, we wanted to examine whether there was an impact of spanking at a neurobiological level, in terms of how the brain is developing."

You can read the entire study here, but the gist is that kids' brain activity was measured using an MRI machine as they reacted to photos of actors displaying "fearful" and "neutral" faces. What researchers found was that kids who had been spanked had similar brain neural responses to fearful faces as kids who had been abused.

"There were no regions of the brain where activation to fearful relative to neutral faces differed between children who were abused and children who were spanked," the authors wrote in a statement.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less