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Is Parenting Associated with Teenagers' Early Sexual Risk-Taking, Autonomy And Relationship with Sexual Partners?

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  • Scottish Children's Reporter Administration

Abstract and Figures

Extensive research has explored the relationship between parenting and teenagers' sexual risk-taking. Whether parenting is associated with wider aspects of teenagers' capacity to form satisfying sexual relationships is unknown. Self-reported data were collected in 2007 from 1,854 students, whose average age was 15.5 years, in central Scotland. Multivariate analyses examined associations between parenting processes and sexual outcomes (delayed first intercourse, condom use and several measures reflecting the context or anticipated context of first sex). Parental supportiveness was positively associated with all outcomes (betas, 0.1-0.4), and parental values restricting intercourse were positively associated with all outcomes except condom use (0.1-0.5). Parental monitoring was associated only with delayed intercourse (0.2) and condom use (0.2); parental rules about TV content were associated with delayed intercourse (0.7) and expecting sex in a relationship, rather than casually (0.8). Frequency of parental communication about sex and parental values endorsing contraceptive use were negatively associated with teenagers' delayed intercourse (-0.5 and -0.3, respectively), and parents' contraceptive values were negatively associated with teenagers' expecting sex in a relationship (-0.5). Associations were partly mediated by teenagers' attitudes, including value placed on having sex in a relationship. Parents may develop teenagers' capacity for positive and safe early sex by promoting skills and values that build autonomy and encourage sex only within a relationship. Interventions should promote supportive parenting and transmission of values, avoid mixed messages about abstinence and contraception, and acknowledge that teenagers may learn more indirectly than directly from parents about sex.
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By Alison Parkes,
Marion Henderson,
Daniel Wight and
Catherine Nixon
Alison Parkes is
investigator scientist,
Marion Henderson
is senior investiga-
tor scientist, Daniel
Wight is program
leader and Catherine
Nixon is predoctoral
fellow—all with the
Sexual Health and
Families Team, Medi-
cal Research Council
Social and Public
Health Sciences Unit,
Glasgow, Scotland.
30 Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health
and social components of sexual health encompassed by
the World Health Organization* defi nition.8–10 Identity,
intimacy and autonomy are viewed as essential to the for-
mation of positive adolescent sexuality.3 Here, we focus on
autonomy and relatedness. Self-determination theory and
similar concepts suggest that these are critical aspects of
adult functioning, or optimal capabilities, which positive
parenting might encourage.11–13 In the context of sexual
relationships, we use “sexual autonomy” to refer to voli-
tion and control in sexual decision making, and “sexual
relatedness” to having sex in the context of an established,
rather than casual, relationship. We investigate these out-
comes not primarily because of their demonstrated asso-
ciations with lower sexual risk-taking,14,15 but because
they are associated with higher quality sexual experiences
among teenagers.16–18 We are, therefore, concerned with
indirect, rather than direct, effects of parenting on the
quality of early teenage sexual behavior, although some
evidence suggests more direct associations.19,20 In fostering
a teenager’s development of optimal capabilities, parents
are likely to promote both positive and safe early sexual
relationships. Sex-focused parenting (parental values and
communication that are directly concerned with sexual
matters) and generic parenting processes (day-to-day
parent-teenager relationship and parental supervision)
may both be associated with a teenager’s sexual behavior.
Research during the last two decades on the effect of
family processes on teenage sexual behavior has focused
almost exclusively on whether positive parenting may
delay fi rst sex and reduce sexual risk-taking.1–5 However,
little evidence exists about possible associations between
parenting and the development of attitudes, skills and
opportunities that are conducive to teenagers’ or young
adults’ ability to establish satisfying sexual relationships.
The current direction of research on family processes
in relation to teenage sexual behavior refl ects both public
health concerns and theoretical approaches to the devel-
opment of risk behaviors, such as problem behavior6 and
social control theories.7 Some scholars have called for a
change in perspective, to focus on the construction of
sexuality as a developmental task of adolescence and early
adulthood, and to take account of the wider emotional
Is Parenting Associated with Teenagers’
Early Sexual Risk-Taking, Autonomy
And Relationship with Sexual Partners?
CONTEXT: Extensive research has explored the relationship between parenting and teenagers’ sexual risk-taking.
Whether parenting is associated with wider aspects of teenagers’ capacity to form satisfying sexual relationships is
unknown.
METHODS: Self-reported data were collected in 2007 from 1,854 students, whose average age was 15.5 years, in
central Scotland. Multivariate analyses examined associations between parenting processes and sexual outcomes
(delayed  rst intercourse, condom use and several measures re ecting the context or anticipated context of  rst sex).
RESULTS: Parental supportiveness was positively associated with all outcomes (betas, 0.1–0.4), and parental values
restricting intercourse were positively associated with all outcomes except condom use (0.1–0.5). Parental monitor-
ing was associated only with delayed intercourse (0.2) and condom use (0.2); parental rules about TV content were
associated with delayed intercourse (0.7) and expecting sex in a relationship, rather than casually (0.8). Frequency of
parental communication about sex and parental values endorsing contraceptive use were negatively associated with
teenagers’ delayed intercourse (–0.5 and –0.3, respectively), and parents’ contraceptive values were negatively associ-
ated with teenagers’ expecting sex in a relationship (–0.5). Associations were partly mediated by teenagers’ attitudes,
including value placed on having sex in a relationship.
CONCLUSIONS: Parents may develop teenagers’ capacity for positive and safe early sex by promoting skills and
values that build autonomy and encourage sex only within a relationship. Interventions should promote supportive
parenting and transmission of values, avoid mixed messages about abstinence and contraception, and acknowledge
that teenagers may learn more indirectly than directly from parents about sex.
Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2011, 43(1):30–40, doi: 10.1363/4303011
*The World Health Organization defi nes sexual health as “a state of
physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality. It requires
a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships,
as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experi-
ences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.” (Source: World
Health Organization, Sexual health, no date, <http://www.who.int/
topics/ sexual_health/en/>, accessed Oct. 25, 2010.)
Re-use of this article is permitted in accordance with the Terms
and Conditions set out at http://wileyonlinelibrary.com/onlineopen#
OnlineOpen_Terms
Volume 43, Number 1, March 2011 31
proxy for parent-teenager closeness and refl ect enhanced
channels of communication of parental values and skills.
Limits on television viewing might infl uence teenagers’
values, partly by restricting exposure to sexually explicit
content, which is predictive of early sexual initiation and
teenage pregnancy,43,44 and partly by signaling parental
sexual values.
RESEARCH GOALS
Our fi rst research aim is to identify parenting processes
that are associated with sexual risk avoidance, autonomy
and relatedness. The evidence that parenting (sex-focused
or generic) is associated with sexual autonomy and relat-
edness is more limited than the evidence for associations
between parenting and sexual risk. Both types of process
may be independently associated with teenage sexual
health.45–47 A clearer understanding of the likely impact of
parental values and communication about sex when set in
the broader context of generic parenting should improve
the design of any parenting component to youth sexual-
ity programs, many of which focus on improving parent-
child communication about sexual matters.48
Our second research aim is to see if associations between
parenting processes and teenagers’ sexual values, atti-
tudes and behaviors vary among females and males. One
review5 found that although mother-child connectedness
was important for adolescents of both genders, parental
monitoring and communication about sex had a stronger
association for females.
Finally, we aim to explore possible mechanisms underly-
ing any associations between parenting and teenage sexual
risk, autonomy and relatedness. These outcomes are inter-
related, as delayed fi rst sex is less likely than early initia-
tion to be coerced or with a casual partner.16,18,49 To assess
whether any associations between parenting and sexual
autonomy and relatedness are connected to parenting pro-
cesses aimed primarily at delaying intercourse, we exam-
ine the mediating effect of age or expected age at fi rst sex
on these associations. We also investigate whether associa-
tions between parenting and sexual risk, autonomy and
relatedness are mediated by teenagers’ attitudes in rela-
tion to these outcomes. Attitudes could be associated with
several outcomes. For instance, a teenager who wishes to
prevent sexual risk may avoid sexual situations that are
relatively diffi cult to control.
METHODS
Data
The data were collected in a survey conducted in January–
May 2007. The survey involved secondary 4 students
(similar to U.S. grade 10), with a mean age of 15.5 years,
from 13 schools among four local authorities in central
Scotland. It provided the baseline data for an evaluation of
Healthy Respect, a national demonstration project funded
by the Scottish government to improve young people’s
sexual health.50 The survey took place a year before seven
schools based in two local districts in the east of Scotland
Reviews of empirical studies of sex-focused parenting
have found consistent associations between parental values
and reduced sexual risk-taking, albeit more mixed fi nd-
ings on possible associations with parental communication
about sex.1–5 In part, the mixed fi ndings for communication
about sexual risk may refl ect methodological limitations.2
Limited research indicates that parental communication
regarding sexual risk-taking may promote condom use self-
effi cacy,21 enhanced partner communication skills22 and
abstinence values.23 Thus, through communication, par-
ents might infl uence a teenager’s sexual norms and beliefs,
as well as shape skills for negotiating sexual situations.
Parental sexual values also may be conveyed less directly,
and teenagers’ perceptions of these values may rely more on
implicit and nonverbal transmission than on direct paren-
tal communication.24 Parental values promoting abstinence
would be expected to endorse sex within an established
relationship.25 The likely effect of parental values promot-
ing contraceptive use is less clear-cut: As highlighted by
the tensions over abstinence-only versus comprehensive
sex education in the United States, sex educators have long
had concerns that promoting contraceptive use may have
a normalizing effect, creating the expectation that teenag-
ers will engage in early sexual behavior.26
The emerging study of adolescent romantic relation-
ships has drawn on ecological and interpersonal theo-
ries of development, suggesting the importance of the
parent-child relationship in shaping the context, style
and meaning of a teenager’s relationships with individuals
outside the family.27 One of the most infl uential models,
attachment theory, suggests that supportive relationships
with parents enable teenagers to develop interpersonal
skills and shape attitudes and beliefs that infl uence their
choices and views of relationships.28,29 Research points to
associations between the quality and style of parent-child
relationships and corresponding aspects of adolescent or
young adult romantic relationships,28,30,31 including sev-
eral prospective studies.32–36 The infl uences of generic par-
enting may extend to the quality of sex within romantic
relationships, and evidence suggests that parental support
is positively associated with adolescent skill in interactions
with a sexual partner.19 However, in general, the sexual
component of teenage romantic relationships is poorly
understood,37 and research emphasis on these relation-
ships has not been matched by research on the high pro-
portion of teenage sexual encounters that take place with
a casual (nonromantic) partner.38
A second aspect of generic parenting is parental supervi-
sion. Both parental monitoring of teenagers’ spare time and
limits on television viewing can delay fi rst sex, although lit-
tle is known about the mechanisms involved.3,39,40 Parental
monitoring might restrict opportunities for casual sex in
situations that a teenager cannot readily control, although
the effects of supervision on initiation of sexual behav-
ior may go beyond opportunity restriction.41 Successful
monitoring may refl ect greater parental knowledge of
a teenager’s activities;42 if so, such knowledge may be a
Is Parenting Associated with Teenagers’ Early Sexual Behavior?
32 Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health
point scale derived from two questions: whether the fi rst
sexual partner was a “boyfriend or girlfriend” (coded 1 if
yes) and, if so, the duration of this relationship before the
couple had sex (seven-point scale with responses ranging
from “less than a week” to “over a year”). Sexual autonomy
was the mean score of three items concerning agreement
with nonautonomous reasons for having sex (“forced,”
“too diffi cult to say no,” “thought he/she would leave me if
I didn’t”), all recorded using fi ve-point scales, ranging
from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” (Cronbach’s
alpha, 0.66). This measure was validated using a factor
analysis of 10 questionnaire items concerning reasons for
rst intercourse. Items with cross-loadings were removed,
and the three items retained loaded on the same factor
(factor loadings were all greater than 0.7).
Relatedness expectation was assessed for sexually inex-
perienced teenagers, who were asked for the situation
in which they envisaged fi rst having penetrative sex.
Response options were expecting to be in a relationship
(“married,” “engaged” or “going steady”), expecting to be
“in love,” expecting to be “sexually attracted” and “don’t
know.” We compared three groups—those who expected
relationship, romance and sexual attraction. Those who
said “don’t know” did not differ in social and demographic
or academic characteristics from those who gave an expec-
tation and were excluded.
Independent Measures
Generic parenting processes. Parental supportiveness
was measured using standardized mean scores of eight
items (Cronbach’s alpha, 0.78). Seven items asked the
extent to which teenagers agreed that their parents* “sense
when I’m upset about something,” “encourage me to talk
about my diffi culties,” “are loving,” “trust my judgment,”
“don’t understand what I’m going through these days,”
“try to control everything I do” and “treat me like a baby”;
responses ranged from “strongly agree” to “strongly dis-
agree.” One item asked for the frequency of “serious
disagreements or arguments” with parents “about, for
instance, drinking, your friends, homework, tidiness or
what you wear”; responses ranged from “every day” to
“never.” All answers were coded using a fi ve-point scale,
and the last four items were reverse-coded.
Parental monitoring was measured using six items: the
extent to which teenagers have to ask permission to go
out, be home by a certain time and telephone and text par-
ents about a change in plans, and to which parents stay up
until the teenager returns home and know of the teenager’s
whereabouts (Cronbach’s alpha, 0.71). Standardized mean
scores were calculated from responses on a four-point
scale (“always,” “usually,” “sometimes” or “never”).
Teenagers were considered to be subject to parental rules
about TV or DVD content if they agreed with any of these
three statements: “I am not allowed to watch some pro-
grams,” “I am not allowed to watch 18 certifi cate fi lms,”†
and “I am not allowed to watch DVDs or TV with a lot of
sex.” Responses to these statements were supplemented by
(the intervention area) started using an enhanced teacher-
delivered sex education package.51 Two local districts in
the west of Scotland, with rates of teenage pregnancy and
abortion that were comparable to those in the intervention
area, were selected as the comparison area. Schools in this
area were matched to those in the intervention area by the
proportion of students eligible for free school meals.
Ethical approval for the research was granted by Napier
University’s Acute and Continuing Care Nursing and
Community Health Schools’ ethics committee. Permission
to administer the questionnaire was granted by the edu-
cation departments of the local authorities concerned.
Parents were informed by letter of the research and had the
opportunity to withdraw their children from the survey;
none did so. Self-completed, anonymous questionnaires
were administered to students by trained researchers
under examination conditions. Researchers explained
the study to individual classes and answered questions.
Students could opt out of the survey or omit questions.
Absentees were followed up within each school.
The eligible sample consisted of 2,283 students. Of
these, 1,990 (87%) completed questionnaires. Some 270
students were absent on the day the survey was admin-
istered and failed to complete a questionnaire on their
return to school, and 10 refused to participate. Nine
questionnaires were excluded because gender or school
information was missing, and four were excluded because
according to data cleaning, students had not taken the sur-
vey seriously.
Outcome Measures
Sexual risk. Delayed rst intercourse was defi ned as no
sexual intercourse by the time of the survey and was
derived from two questions: One asked if teenagers had
ever had penetrative sex (anal or vaginal), and the other
asked the gender of sexual partner. (A clear defi nition of
penetrative sex—anal or vaginal intercourse—was pro-
vided to all students before they started answering any
questions.)
This allowed students with a same-sex partner to answer
the same questions about fi rst sex as students with an
opposite-sex partner. We excluded teenagers reporting a
same-sex partner from the analytic sample, but we cannot
distinguish experience of anal intercourse from experience
of vaginal intercourse.
Lifetime condom use was measured with the question
“How often did you or your partner use a condom (for
all the times you had penetrative sex)?” Response options
were “never,” “not very often,” “about half the time,” “most
of the time” and “always.”
Sexual relatedness and autonomy. Two measures of the
context of fi rst sex were assessed for all teenagers reporting
heterosexual intercourse. Sexual relatedness was an eight-
*Throughout the text, “parent” also denotes “guardian.”
†These are fi lms classifi ed by the British Board of Film Classifi cation as
not to be viewed, rented or purchased by those younger than 18.
Volume 43, Number 1, March 2011 33
Attitudinal mediators were assessed for all teenagers,
regardless of sexual experience. Condom use intentions
were standardized mean scores for fi ve items asking about
intentions to get, carry, discuss using, suggest using and
always use condoms. Responses were coded on a fi ve-
point scale from “do not strongly intend” to “strongly
intend” (Cronbach’s alpha, 0.75). Autonomy intention was
the mean score of responses to two statements indicating
intention: “to say no to doing something sexual you don’t
want to do” and “if things become sexual I intend to tell
my partner exactly how far I want to go.” Responses were
coded on the same fi ve-point scale (Pearson correlation,
0.26; p<.001). Relatedness value was derived from agree-
ment with two statements: “People should only have pen-
etrative sex within a loving relationship” and “casual sex
is acceptable if a condom is used.” A fi ve-point scale from
“strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” was used (Pearson
correlation, 0.35; p<.001). After the fi rst item was reverse-
coded, mean scores were calculated.
information from free text responses to a question inviting
teenagers to describe “other rules.” Teenagers were clas-
sifi ed as having no rules about TV content if they agreed
with the statement “I can watch anything I like” or agreed
that their parents placed restrictions on the amount or
timing of their TV viewing (“I’m only allowed to watch a
certain amount of TV” or “I have to fi nish my homework
or special jobs fi rst”). We combined these two groups after
exploratory analysis found no difference in the association
with sexual outcomes.
Sex-focused parenting processes. Perceived parental val-
ues restricting sexual intercourse were measured by asking
all teenagers whether they thought that each of their par-
ents would agree that “people should be in a loving rela-
tionship before having penetrative sex” and “would
disapprove of me having penetrative sex.” The four items
were coded on a fi ve-point scale from “strongly disagree”
to “strongly agree,” and standardized mean scores were
calculated (Cronbach’s alpha, 0.71). Perceived parental
values endorsing contraceptive use were measured in a
similar way, using standardized mean scores for responses
to two statements: “My mother/father would want me to
use condoms if I had penetrative sex” and “My mother/
father would want me/my girlfriend to go on the pill if I
had penetrative sex” (Cronbach’s alpha, 0.78).
Frequency of parental communication was measured
from 11 items about communication with parents (of
either gender) about sexual situations and contraception
during the past year. Communication about sexual situa-
tions covered six topics: “whether it is a good idea to have
a serious boyfriend or girlfriend at your age,” “places they
don’t want you to go,” “people they don’t want you to go
out with,” “how to behave with a boyfriend or girlfriend,”
“situations that could lead to having sex with someone you
don’t want to” and “when it is ok to have penetrative sex.”
Communication about contraception covered fi ve topics:
“contraception (ways to avoid pregnancy when having
sex, e.g., condoms, the pill),” “how to use condoms prop-
erly,” “where to get advice about contraception,” “getting
pregnant/getting someone pregnant” and “how to avoid
sexually transmitted infections.” Frequency of communi-
cation was measured using a four-point scale (“not at all,”
“just a little,” “quite a lot,” “very often”), and standardized
mean scores were calculated (Cronbach’s alpha, 0.89).
Ease of parental communication consisted of standard-
ized mean scores of two items measuring how comfortable
teenagers felt when talking with their mother and father
about sex, using a fi ve-point scale from “very uncomfort-
able” to “very comfortable” (Pearson correlation, 0.38;
p<.001).
Hypothesized mediators for parenting processes. Age in
years at fi rst sex was used for sexually experienced teenag-
ers, and anticipated age at fi rst sex was used for sexually
inexperienced teenagers (fi ve-point scale from “by the age
of 16” to “when 20 or older,” excluding teenagers who said
“don’t know”). The “don’t know” group was similar in
composition to teenagers who gave an age.
TABLE 1. Selected characteristics of students participating in a sexual health
intervention evaluation, by gender, Scotland, 2007
Characteristic Total Male Female
ALL
(N=1,854)
(N=926)
(N=928)
Social and demographic
Mean age (mos.) 195.86 (16.61) 195.59 (16.13) 196.13 (17.07)
Nonwhite* 6 7 5
Do not live with both biological parents 31 32 30
Father left school at 16 38 38 38
No. of standard grade subjects studied
8 43 41 44
6–7 20 22 18
5 37 37 37
Sexual behavior
Ever had sexual intercourse** 32 29 35
Median age at fi rst intercourse (range, 10–16) 14 14 14
SEXUALLY EXPERIENCED (N=592) (N=269) (N=323)
Condom use
Never 12 13 11
Not very often 10 8 12
About half the time 8 8 8
Most of the time 19 14 22
Always 51 57 47
Mean sexual autonomy
at fi rst sex (range, 1–5)***
4.07 (0.69) 3.93 (0.65) 4.18 (0.69)
Sexual relatedness at fi rst intercourse***
No relationship 27 32 23
Relationship of <1 week 3 3 3
Relationship of 1–2 weeks 5 6 4
Relationship of 2 weeks–1 month 11 13 10
Relationship of 1–3 months 20 20 20
Relationship of 3–6 months 18 14 22
Relationship of 6 months–1 year 11 8 13
Relationship of >1 year 5 4 6
SEXUALLY INEXPERIENCED (N=1,262) (N=657) (N=605)
Expected context of fi rst intercourse**
In relationship† 23 20 26
In love 19 15 22
Sexually attracted 20 26 13
Don’t know 39 39 39
*p<.05. **p<.01. ***p<.001. †Married, engaged or going steady. Notes: Unless otherwise noted, data are per-
centages. Figures in parentheses are standard deviations. Measures used for mean scores are not standardized.
Percentage distributions may not add to 100 because of rounding. Chi-square or t tests were used to assess
signifi cance of gender differences.
Is Parenting Associated with Teenagers’ Early Sexual Behavior?
34 Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health
with those observed for each variable, given the observed
values of other variables used in the imputation model.
The clustering of students by school was ignored in the
imputation for simplicity. We generated 20 imputed data
sets, and estimates were combined across these using the
micombine procedure in Stata.53,54 Results were similar to
those from complete case analyses, and for simplicity, we
present only results using the imputed data set here.
In the second step, interactions between gender and
parenting measures were added to the models, to test for
gender differences in associations.
In the third step, we investigated possible mediators for
parenting processes that were associated with delayed fi rst
intercourse (among all teenagers); condom use, sexual
autonomy and sexual relatedness (among sexually expe-
rienced teenagers); and relatedness expectation (among
sexually inexperienced teenagers). We followed the
three-stage approach recommended by Baron and Kenny.55
We regressed each parenting measure and the covariates
on each proposed mediator. We then regressed the parent-
ing measure and covariates on the outcome measure, and
repeated this calculation including the proposed mediator
as an independent variable. Mediation occurs when three
conditions are met: The parenting measure is associated
with the mediator, the mediator is associated with the
sexual outcome, and the association between the parent-
ing measure and the sexual outcome loses signifi cance or
shrinks upon the addition of the mediator to the model.
We conducted a Sobel test to establish whether a given
mediator carried the infl uence of a parenting measure on
the outcome. Where Sobel tests were signifi cant at p<.05
for at least one combination of parenting process and
mediator, we added mediators to full models with all par-
enting measures as covariates. We calculated the indirect
effect of parenting via mediators as a proportion of the
total effect (i.e., the reduction in the size of a coeffi cient
for a parenting measure after mediators are included).
RESULTS
Descriptive and Bivariate
In all, 1,990 students returned usable questionnaires. Of
these, 1,854 teenagers (926 males and 928 females) pro-
vided information on whether they had experienced pen-
etrative intercourse; this group formed the base sample for
our analysis. The sample was mostly white; only 6% were
from ethnic minority groups (Table 1, page 33); 31% did
not live with both biological parents, and 38% had a father
who had left school at age 16.
At the time of the survey, 32% of the base sample—35%
of females and 29% of males—had had heterosexual inter-
course. The median age at fi rst intercourse was 14 in both
sexes. Although condom use did not vary by gender, other
sexual outcomes did. Females reported greater autonomy
than males at fi rst sex (means, 4.2 and 3.9, respectively),
and were more likely than males to have experienced fi rst
sex within the context of a relationship (77% vs. 68%) or
to anticipate doing so (26% vs. 20%).†
Analysis
Bivariate analyses explored correlations between parenting
measures and associations between parenting measures
and experience of sexual intercourse.
Multivariate models examined the association of parent-
ing measures with sexual outcomes using Stata version 10,
taking account of clustering by school. In the fi rst step,
covariates in all models consisted of gender, age in months
at interview, study area (intervention or comparison), father’s
education (whether the teenager’s father left school at age 16,
the minimum allowable age), family structure (whether the
teenager lived with both biological parents) and academic
ability (number of Scottish standard grade subjects studied
at credit level).* Models used linear regression, except for
rst sex (binary logit), condom use (ordered logit) and relat-
edness expectation (multinomial regression). Associations
are reported as statistically signifi cant where p<.05.
We initially performed complete case analyses. In all
models, levels of missing information for outcomes and
covariates were elevated among teenagers whose father
had left school at age 16, were relatively young at the time
of interview, were studying for fewer standard grades at
credit level, expected to leave school at age 16, reported
low parental monitoring and reported heterosexual inter-
course. To decrease bias and increase the power of the
analyses, we used multiple chained equations (ICE pro-
gram, version 1.7.0) to impute missing values.52 Reduction
in bias is expected when the items to be imputed are miss-
ing at random, meaning that their values are comparable
TABLE 2. Measures of selected sex-focused and generic parenting processes, by teen-
agers’ sexual experience
Parenting process All Sexually
Sexually
inexperienced
experienced
Sex-focused
Frequency of parental communication (range, 1–4)*** 1.64 (0.59) 1.54 (0.54) 1.85 (0.64 )
Ease of parental communication (range, 1–5) 2.31 (1.06) 2.29 (1.05) 2.33 (1.08)
Parental values restricting intercourse (range, 1–5) 3.46 (0.68) 3.48 (0.67) 3.42 (0.70)
Parental values endorsing contraceptive use
(range, 1–5)*** 3.95 (0.68) 3.89 (0.69) 4.07 (0.66)
Generic
Parental supportiveness (range, 1–5)*** 3.65 (0.66) 3.69 (0.63) 3.58 (0.71)
Parental monitoring (range, 1–4)*** 2.80 (0.60) 2.85 (0.60) 2.70 (0.59)
Parental rules about TV content (%)*** 27 33 16
***p<.001. Notes: Unless otherwise noted, data are unstandardized means (and standard deviations).
Chi-square or t tests were used to assess signifi cance of gender differences.
*Standard grades are Scotland’s educational qualifi cations, examined at
ages 15–16 (broadly equivalent to the General Certifi cate of Secondary
Education taken in other parts of the United Kingdom). Within the
standard grade system, examinations are set at three levels of diffi culty:
foundation, general and credit (highest academic) level. Not all students
will study a subject to credit level; some may sit only for foundation- or
general-level examinations.
†The autonomy measure also was associated with partner pressure to
have sex (not shown). Although only a minority reported partner pres-
sure, females were more likely than males to do so (24% vs. 11%, p<.001).
Other aspects of volition, such as perceived control over sexual desires,
may account for females’ higher sexual autonomy scores.
Volume 43, Number 1, March 2011 35
parents endorsed contraceptive use, the less likely they
were to delay intercourse and the more likely they were to
expect fi rst sex when sexually attracted, rather than when
in love or in a relationship (–0.2 to –0.5).
In the generic parenting category, parental supportive-
ness was positively associated with all outcomes except
expecting to be in love rather than sexually attracted at
rst sex (betas, 0.1–0.4). Parental monitoring was posi-
tively associated with delayed intercourse (0.2) and
condom use (0.2), while rules about TV content were
associated with delayed sex (0.7) and expecting fi rst sex
to occur in a relationship, rather than simply because of
sexual attraction (0.8).
The associations between parenting measures and teen-
age sexual behaviors, experiences and expectations that
were obtained by adding a term for the interaction of
gender and parenting to the Table 3 models revealed few
signifi cant gender differences (not shown). In the model
of condom use, parental monitoring was signifi cant for
females (beta, 0.4), and frequency of parental communica-
tion was signifi cant for males (–0.4). In the sexual auton-
omy model, the interaction coeffi cient for females with
parental monitoring bordered on signifi cance (0.1; p<.10).
Mediators
Some associations between parenting and sexual behavior
were mediated by older age at fi rst sex or expected age
at fi rst sex (Table 4, page 36). In the model of condom
use, age at fi rst sex reduced the coeffi cients for supportive
relationship (from 0.22 to 0.20) and parental monitor-
ing (0.21 to 0.19), in both cases to nonsignifi cance. In
the model of expecting fi rst sex to occur in a relationship
expected age at fi rst sex had a similar effect on TV rules
(0.8 to –0.4).
Attitudinal variables also acted as mediators. Condom
use intentions were the strongest mediator of parenting
in the condom use model, and their inclusion reduced
the coeffi cients for supportive relationship (0.22 to 0.16)
and parental monitoring (0.2 to 0.1), to nonsignifi cance in
Correlations between many of the parenting measures
were low but signifi cant. For example, parental values
restricting intercourse were positively associated with
parental monitoring (r=0.27) and supportive relation-
ship (0.21), and parental values promoting contraceptive
use were positively associated with frequency of parental
communication (0.25). These correlations suggest that
sex-focused parenting and generic parenting measures
are interrelated to some extent and underline the impor-
tance of including a range of measures in the multivariate
models. (Full results are available on request.)
Analyses of sex-focused parenting revealed low overall
frequency of parental communication about sex (mean,
1.6—Table 2), although parental values reported by all
teenagers were relatively high (3.5 for restricting inter-
course and 4.0 for endorsing contraception). Compared
with sexually experienced teenagers, those without sexual
experience reported less parental communication about
sex (1.5 vs. 1.9) and lower parental endorsement of
contraceptive use (3.9 vs. 4.1). However, sexually inex-
perienced teenagers reported a more supportive parental
relationship than their sexually experienced peers (3.7 vs.
3.6), as well as more parental monitoring (2.9 vs. 2.7) and
parental restrictions on TV content (33% vs. 16%).
Multivariate
Parental communication about sex was not associated with
any sexual outcomes except delayed intercourse (Table 3).
Frequency of communication was negatively associated
with delayed intercourse (beta, –0.5), and greater ease of
parental communication about sex was positively associ-
ated with delayed intercourse (0.1). In contrast, parental
values were associated with a range of outcomes. Values
restricting intercourse were positively associated with
delayed intercourse, sexual autonomy, sexual relatedness
and sexually inexperienced teenagers’ expectation that fi rst
sex will occur when they are in love or in a relationship,
rather than just sexually attracted to someone (0.1–0.5).
However, the more strongly students agreed that their
TABLE 3. Coeffi cients from multivariate analyses assessing associations between parenting processes and sexual outcomes,
by teenagers’ sexual experience
Parenting process All Sexually experienced Sexually inexperienced†
Delayed rst Condom Sexual Sexual Expect to be in Expect to be in
intercourse use autonomy relatedness love at fi rst sex relationship at
rst sex
Sex-focused
Frequency of parental communication –0.54 (0.07)** 0.01 (0.08) –0.01 (0.03) 0.14 (0.11) 0.05 (0.16) 0.13 (0.12)
Ease of parental communication 0.14 (0.05)* –0.03 (0.10) 0.03 (0.04) –0.08 (0.11) 0.01 (0.12) –0.16 (0.12)
Parental values restricting intercourse 0.16 (0.08)* 0.13 (0.11) 0.06 (0.03)* 0.32 (0.12)* 0.45 (0.10)*** 0.41 (0.08)***
Parental values endorsing contraceptive use –0.28 (0.06)* –0.16 (0.11) 0.04 (0.03) 0.01 (0.15) –0.24 (0.12)* –0.46 (0.11)***
Generic
Parental supportiveness 0.13 (0.06)** 0.22 (0.08)** 0.13 (0.03)** 0.33 (0.08)** 0.20 (0.10) 0.35 (0.11)***
Parental monitoring 0.23 (0.07)** 0.21 (0.09)* 0.01 (0.04) 0.08 (0.09) 0.16 (0.16) 0.14 (0.15)
Parental rules about TV content 0.74 (0.09)** –0.09 (0.23) –0.18 (0.09) 0.21 (0.28) 0.55 (0.29) 0.83 (0.27)**
*p<.05. **p<.01. ***p<.001. Notes: Models adjusted for gender, age, intervention or comparison area, family structure, standard grades and father’s education.
†Excludes 618 students with “don’t know” and 74 with missing information for either of two questions regarding expected age or context of fi rst sex. Figures
in parentheses are standard errors.
Is Parenting Associated with Teenagers’ Early Sexual Behavior?
36 Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health
range of 12–41%, and for parental values restricting inter-
course, 41–88%.
DISCUSSION
The study suggests that parenting may be associated with
multiple benefi ts to teenagers’ sexual relationships—
delayed intercourse and greater condom use, as well as
greater sexual autonomy and an increased likelihood
that sex will occur within a relationship, which other
research has indicated are associated with higher quality
sexual experiences.16–18 Thus, the benefi ts of parenting
may extend beyond helping teenagers avoid sexual risk,
enhancing their capacity to have positive early sexual
relationships.
A supportive parent-teenager relationship and paren-
tal values restricting intercourse had the most pervasive
positive associations with sexual outcomes. Their associa-
tion with sexual risk-taking is broadly in line with those
observed in previous research;1–5 however, we found
no association between parental intercourse values and
condom use, and earlier fi ndings for parental support-
iveness have been inconsistent.1–4 We also found positive
associations between these two dimensions of parenting
and sexual relatedness and autonomy. The relatively small
association between parental values restricting intercourse
both cases. Teenagers’ relatedness value reduced the coef-
cients for parental values restricting intercourse in the
models of delayed fi rst sex (0.2 to 0.1) and sexual relat-
edness (0.3 to 0.2), in both cases to nonsignifi cance. It
partially mediated other associations; for example, when it
was added to the model of delayed intercourse, the coeffi -
cient for TV rules was reduced but still statistically signifi -
cant. Relatedness value also partially mediated some of the
negative association with parental values endorsing con-
traceptive use, since teenagers who reported high parental
contraceptive values placed lower value on having sex in
the context of a meaningful relationship. For example, the
coeffi cient for parental contraceptive values in the model
of expecting fi rst sex in a relationship was reduced from
–0.5 to –0.4 but remained signifi cant. Autonomy inten-
tions did not mediate any associations between parenting
and sexual autonomy or any other outcomes.
Overall, except in the models of sexual autonomy (which
had no mediators) and delayed fi rst sex (which had only
one), adjustment for mediators left few signifi cant direct
associations with parenting. Indirect associations between
parenting and sexual outcomes via mediators varied con-
siderably. For parental monitoring and TV rules, adjust-
ment for all mediators reduced the overall coeffi cients by
7–67%. For supportive parenting, reductions were in the
TABLE 4. Coeffi cients from multivariate analyses assessing associations between parenting processes and sexual outcomes,
with and without adjustment for potential mediators, and estimated indirect associations via mediators
Outcome and parenting process
No adjustment Adjusted for Adjusted for Adjusted for Indirect
for mediators age at fi rst strongest all mediators association
sex/expected attitudinal via mediators
age rst sex mediator (%)
Delayed fi rst intercourse†
Frequency of parental communication –0.54 (0.07)** .na –0.55 (0.07)*** –0.55 (0.07)*** 0
Ease of parental communication 0.14 (0.05)* .na 0.13 (0.05)** 0.13 (0.05)** 7
Parental values restricting intercourse 0.16 (0.08)* .na 0.07 (0.09) 0.07 (0.09) 56
Parental values endorsing contraceptive use –0.28 (0.06)* .na –0.25 (0.06)*** –0.25 (0.06)*** 11
Parental supportiveness 0.13 (0.06)** .na 0.10 (0.06) 0.10 (0.06) 23
Parental monitoring 0.23 (0.07)** .na 0.21 (0.07)** 0.21 (0.07)** 9
Parental rules about TV content 0.74 (0.09)** .na 0.69 (0.09)*** 0.69 (0.09)*** 7
Condom use‡
Parental supportiveness 0.22 (0.08)** 0.20 (0.08) 0.16 (0.08) 0.13 (0.09) 41
Parental monitoring 0.21 (0.09)* 0.19 (0.09) 0.09 (0.09) 0.07 (0.09) 67
Sexual autonomy§
Parental values restricting intercourse 0.06 (0.03)* .na .na 0.06 (0.03)* 0
Parental supportiveness 0.13 (0.03)** .na .na 0.13 (0.03)** 0
Sexual relatedness††
Parental values restricting intercourse 0.32 (0.12)* .na 0.19 (0.12) 0.19 (0.12) 41
Parental supportiveness 0.33 (0.08)** .na 0.30 (0.09)** 0.28 (0.09)* 12
Expect fi rst sex when in love‡‡
Parental values restricting intercourse 0.45 (0.10)*** 0.26 (0.11)* 0.26 (0.12)* 0.10 (0.12) 78
Parental values endorsing contraceptive use –0.24 (0.12)* –0.15 (0.14) –0.14 (0.14) –0.12 (0.16) 50
Expect fi rst sex when in relationship‡‡
Parental values restricting intercourse 0.41 (0.08)*** 0.19 (0.09)* 0.22 (0.10)* 0.05 (0.11) 88
Parental values endorsing contraceptive use –0.46 (0.11)*** –0.34 (0.15)* –0.35 (0.12)** –0.31 (0.15)* 33
Parental rules about TV content 0.83 (0.27)** 0.43 (0.28) 0.68 (0.27)* 0.31 (0.30) 63
Parental supportiveness 0.35 (0.11)*** 0.30 (0.14)* 0.33 (0.12)** 0.25 (0.15) 29
*p<.05. **p<.01. ***p<.001. †Mediated by relatedness value. ‡Mediated by age at first sex and (more strongly) condom intentions. §No mediators.
††Mediated by age at first sex, autonomy intentions and (most strongly) relatedness value. ‡‡Mediated by expected age at first sex, autonomy intentions
and (most strongly) relatedness value. Notes: All models adjusted for the same covariates listed in Table 3. na=not applicable. Figures in parentheses are
standard errors.
Volume 43, Number 1, March 2011 37
teenagers placed on having sex while in a meaningful
relationship. This could suggest that teenagers link paren-
tal advocacy of contraceptive use with more permissive
attitudes toward casual sex, as other research suggests,65
or that a teenager’s permissive attitudes prompt parents
to express approval of contraceptive use. In prospective
studies, perceived parental approval of contraceptive use
and more frequent communication have predicted sexual
initiation.45,66
Limitations and Strengths
Our analysis has a number of limitations, notably the use
of teenagers’ self-reported data and the cross-sectional
design. Questions about the validity of self-reported data
on sexual behavior, and possible discrepancies between
teenagers’ and parents’ reported perceptions of parenting,
are common issues in studies of this type. However, stud-
ies collecting data from both parents and teenagers have
suggested that teenagers’ perceptions are better predictors
of outcomes than parents’ responses.67 The associations we
found may refl ect not causal links, but the operation of
other, unmeasured infl uences. These could include other
parenting processes (for example, parents’ overall expec-
tations for their child may infl uence perceived sexual
values68), as well as other aspects of the teenager’s social
environment, such as peer group and school.
The cross-sectional nature of the study, as already
noted, precludes our assessing the direction of causation.
Teenagers engaged in risky sexual activities may develop
a poor relationship with their parents and make it more
diffi cult for their parents to regulate their behavior.
Negative effects on a teenager’s relationship with parents
following fi rst sex have been observed in longitudinal
studies.69,70
Further limitations include the interchangeable use of
“parent” and “guardian” in the parenting measures, and
the fact that few measures were collected separately for
each parent, which further restricted investigation of dif-
ferences according to whether there was a biological rela-
tionship, and according to different parent-child dyads.
The largely white sample limits generalizability to ethnic
subgroups in which differences in parenting processes in
relation to teenage sexual behavior have been noted.46,71
Our data mainly relate to fi rst intercourse, and parenting
infl uences may wane once teenagers are sexually experi-
enced. Finally, most young people in this study had not
yet had sexual intercourse. As teenagers grow older and
more independent, the parent-child relationship and par-
enting processes change.19,72 Plus, teenagers who start
sex later may be subject to different predictors of sexual
behavior than those who start early.3,73
The study also has a number of strengths. The wide
range of parenting measures allowed us to capture more
of the complex nature of parenting processes than have
studies relying on two or three measures. We were able
to explore whether teenagers may be infl uenced by
parental communication after considering more generic
and sexual autonomy could be an indirect result of associ-
ations with relatedness, since having fi rst sex within a rela-
tionship instead of casually makes it easier for teenagers
to exercise autonomy.16 Overall, the associations between
parenting and sexual relatedness and autonomy did not
entirely depend on teenagers’ age at fi rst sex or expected
age at fi rst sex, as would be predicted if they simply
resulted from associations between parenting and sexual
risk-taking. Associations between parental intercourse val-
ues and relatedness echo fi ndings from a U.S. study, based
on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health,
in which parental values affected teenagers’ selection of
a romantic rather than a casual partner, and were largely
mediated by the value teenagers placed on having sex in
a loving relationship.38 However, the basis for associations
between a supportive relationship and sexual autonomy
and relatedness in our study did not appear to be con-
ned to a narrow range of infl uences on teenagers’ values
and intentions. Our fi ndings are in line with theoretical
approaches suggesting that parents may shape teenagers’
social skills and attitudes toward sexual relationships, and
with research indicating that parental support is positively
associated with teenagers’ sense of volitional functioning
and adjustment.12,56
Parental monitoring and rules restricting TV content
had less pervasive associations with sexual outcomes.
Signifi cant fi ndings for parental monitoring were restricted
to associations with risk avoidance—delayed sex and con-
dom use—and generally echo previous results.1–4 For
some outcomes, monitoring appeared to have a stronger
association in females than in males, as earlier research in
Scotland has shown.57 Parental rules restricting TV con-
tent were associated with delayed fi rst sex (in line with
other research39,45) and anticipating sex in a relationship.
In part, these associations may be explained in terms of
the value teenagers placed on relationship sex. This sug-
gests that media infl uences (from TV and other sources,
including the Internet) on sexual norms and expectancies,
which some researchers have begun to investigate in rela-
tion to teenagers’ initiation of sexual behavior,58–61 should
be explored in more detail. Alternatively, TV rules might
be a proxy for general parental attitudes toward sex.
Greater ease of communication was associated with
delayed fi rst sex, as reported elsewhere.24,45 However,
some negative associations with sexual outcomes were
found for both parental values endorsing contraceptive
use and frequency of parental communication. For contra-
ceptive values, this might simply refl ect greater certainty
over parental approval on the part of teenagers who are
either anticipating or already engaged in sexual activity.
Similarly, the negative association between more frequent
communication and delayed fi rst sex could refl ect reverse
causation in the cross-sectional data, if anticipated or
actual fi rst sex leads to increased communication.62–64 Or,
more frequent discussion could signal liberal parental atti-
tudes toward early sex. We found that parental approval of
contraceptive use was negatively associated with the value
Parents
may shape
teenagers’
social skills
and attitudes
toward sexual
relationships.
Is Parenting Associated with Teenagers’ Early Sexual Behavior?
38 Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health
4. Kotchick BA, Shaffer A and Forehand R, Adolescent sexual risk
behavior: a multi-system perspective, Clinical Psychology Review, 2001,
21(4):493–519.
5. Markham CM et al., Connectedness as a predictor of sexual and
reproductive health outcomes for youth, Journal of Adolescent Health,
2010, 46(3 Suppl.):S23–S41.
6. Jessor R, Risk behavior in adolescence: a psychosocial framework
for understanding and action, Journal of Adolescent Health, 1991,
12(8):597–605.
7. Hirschi T, Causes of Delinquency, Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1969.
8. Edwards W and Coleman E, Defi ning sexual health: a descriptive
overview, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2004, 33(3):189–195.
9. Russell S, Conceptualizing positive adolescent sexuality develop-
ment, Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 2005, 2(3):4–12.
10. Halpern CT, Reframing research on adolescent sexuality: healthy
sexual development as part of the life course, Perspectives on Sexual and
Reproductive Health, 2010, 42(1):6–7.
11. Ryan RM and Deci EL, Self-determination theory and the facili-
tation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being,
American Psychologist, 2000, 55(1):68–78.
12. Soenens B et al., Conceptualizing parental autonomy support:
adolescent perceptions of promotion of independence versus pro-
motion of volitional functioning, Developmental Psychology, 2007,
43(3):633–646.
13. Barber BK and Schluterman JM, Connectedness in the lives of
children and adolescents: a call for greater conceptual clarity, Journal
of Adolescent Health, 2008, 43(3):209–216.
14. Manning WD, Longmore MA and Giordano PC, The relation-
ship context of contraceptive use at fi rst intercourse, Family Planning
Perspectives, 2000, 32(3):104–110.
15. Rosengard C et al., Perceived STD risk, relationship, and health
values in adolescents’ delaying sexual intercourse with new partners,
Sexually Transmitted Infections, 2004, 80(2):130–137.
16. Wight D et al., The quality of young people’s heterosexual rela-
tionships: a longitudinal analysis of characteristics shaping subjec-
tive experience, Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2008,
40(4):226–237.
17. Ott MA et al., Greater expectations: adolescents’ positive moti-
vations for sex, Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2006,
38(2):84–89.
18. Layte R and McGee H, Regret about the timing of fi rst sexual
intercourse: the role of age and context, Economic and Social Research
Institute (ESRI) Working Papers, Dublin, Ireland: Economic and Social
Research Institute, 2007, No. 217.
19. de Graaf H et al., Parental support and knowledge and adoles-
cents’ sexual health: testing two mediational models in a national
Dutch sample, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 2010, 39(2):189–198.
20. Ojanlatva A et al., Will childhood relationships with parents con-
tribute to a satisfying sex life? Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 2003,
18(2):205–214.
21. Hutchinson MK et al., The role of mother-daughter sexual risk
communication in reducing sexual risk behaviors among urban ado-
lescent females: a prospective study, Journal of Adolescent Health, 2003,
33(2):98–107.
22. DiClemente RJ et al., Parent-adolescent communication and
sexual risk behaviors among African American adolescent females,
Journal of Pediatrics, 2001, 139(3):407–412.
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day- to-day parenting processes and any indirect transmis-
sion of parental values. More longitudinal work is needed
to investigate possible mechanisms for the associations
we found, particularly the role that the parent-child rela-
tionship plays in shaping skills required in developing
intimate sexual relationships, and to clarify the role of par-
enting processes in a wider social context (for example,
peer and school infl uences).
Conclusion
While our study represents only a fi rst step toward under-
standing the wider aspects of the relationship between
parenting and teenage sexual behavior and cannot
confi rm causality, it supports the view that both sex-
focused and generic parenting may indirectly promote
more positive, as well as safer, early sexual experiences.
It suggests that parenting may be important in helping
teenagers, even those who have sex at an early age, to
develop values and skills for managing relationships.
It also suggests that educators and health professionals
should not frame the parental role solely in terms of
advocating delayed sex.
Like many similar studies of sex-focused parenting, ours
might lack potentially important details on the content and
quality of parental communication about sex.2,74 The pre-
dominant approach of parenting interventions designed to
reduce children’s sexual risk behaviors is to promote sex-
specifi c parental communication.21 Our fi ndings suggest
that this will be neither simple nor suffi cient for promot-
ing more positive sexual development. Programs should
acknowledge that parents may transmit values restrict-
ing intercourse over an extended period, and through
indirect means, not only through “sex talk” with their
teenagers. However, possible tension between parental
messages about delaying sex and promotion of contracep-
tive use for teenagers who are having intercourse must be
resolved.
Generic parenting is likely to have a much longer period
of infl uence than sex-focused parenting. Although par-
enting programs incorporating generic approaches have
promoted parental monitoring,75,76 another form of super-
vision, parental restriction of TV content, deserves wider
attention. Interventions also should focus on the impor-
tance of a supportive parent-teenager relationship, which
factors into teenagers’ lives several years before they are
likely to start sexual activity.
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Acknowledgments
This research uses data collected as part of the phase 2 evalua-
tion of Healthy Respect, commissioned by National Health Service
Health Scotland and funded by the Scottish government. It was
funded by the Medical Research Council as part of the sexual and
reproductive health program (WBS U.1300.00.005). The authors
thank the participating education authorities, schools, teachers,
pupils and fi eld-workers, and their collaborators on Healthy Re-
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Author contact: alison-p@sphsu.mrc.ac.uk
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