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Updated 9:00 AM September 7, 2009

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Certain working environments
may be dangerous to young people's sexual health

Working too many hours in the wrong environment can be dangerous for your child's sexual health by fostering conditions that lead to having older sexual partners, a new study shows.

This is just one of the key findings in a study of Flint youth on what predicts age of sex partners. Age difference of sex partners is important, says Jose Bauermeister, one of the study authors, because a larger age difference is associated with riskier sexual behavior and STDs, including HIV. The study found that youth's self esteem and alcohol use also play a role in the age difference between sex partners, says Bauermeister, an assistant research professor in the School of Public Health.

Bauermeister stresses that research shows that overall, teenagers who work part-time benefit in almost all areas over those who don't have jobs. However, those benefits come with caveats, he says.

Bauermeister's team followed Flint youth as they transitioned from adolescence to young adulthood (ages 14 thru 25), to see what factors predicted sex partner age difference. Many factors can lead to age differences in sex partners, with girls usually dating older than boys and young men, the study found.

Working too many hours in an adult atmosphere without adequate supervision can lead to exposure to adults, and eventually to sexual activity with older partners, especially for young girls, Bauermeister says. Age and number of work hours matter in adolescents, but any negative impact isn't apparent after age 18 or 19, the study found.

"It's OK to let kids work," says Bauermeister. "We want to make sure they are spending time in an environment where it's safe to work. Parents must ask the right questions and make sure it's a safe place for their children."

This is one of just several key finding in the study. High self esteem and low use of alcohol offset the negative effects of working too many hours, he says. Those factors also protect youth overall, from engaging in riskier sexual behavior.

The study also found that girls tend to date older from age 14 on, as do high school dropouts and youth who use alcohol. Boys at age 14 date their own age until they reach age 18, when they start dating younger women, Bauermeister says.

Sex education programs and preventative efforts to reduce sex partners age differences for adolescents and young adults could benefit by interventions that enhance self-acceptance, academic achievement, decrease alcohol use, and adapt health promotion materials for working youth, the study states.

The study, called "What predicts sex partners' age differences among African American youth? A longitudinal study from adolescence to young adulthood," appears online in the Journal of Sex Research>.

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