September 6, 2012

Study Finds Public Health Messages Encourage Fathers to Speak with Their Children about Sex

Highlights

  • Study examined changes in parent-child communication following exposure to PSAs over 18-months
  • Fathers exposed to PSAs had an increase in father-child communication about sex
  • The same messages had little lasting impact on mothers
  • The study was conducted by RTI International and George Washington University

Media Contacts

  • News@rti.org
  • Lisa Bistreich-Wolfe
    919-316-3596
  • Kami Spangenberg
    919-485-5606
Jonathan Blitstein
Jonathan Blitstein

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — Public health messages may help encourage fathers to have more conversations with their children about waiting to become sexually active, according to researchers at RTI International and George Washington University.

The study, published in The American Journal of Health Promotion, examined changes in parent-child communication habits following exposure to public health messages over 18-months.

During the study period, more than 1,200 parents of adolescent or pre-adolescent children were exposed to video, print and audio public service announcements (PSAs) that promoted the benefits of speaking to their children about delaying initiation of sexual activity. The PSAs were a part of Parents Speak Up National Campaign, a multimedia social marketing campaign aimed at promoting parent-child communication about sex. A control group of almost 700 parents were not exposed to the messages.

The researchers found that fathers exposed to campaign messages demonstrated a consistent and increasing pattern of father-child communication over the 18-month period compared to fathers who were not exposed to the PSAs. 

However, among mothers, the PSAs had little lasting impact. Although there was some evidence of impact following initial exposure, the frequency of mother-child communication across the 18-month period did not differ between mothers exposed to the campaign messages and those not exposed.

“With this study, we wanted to extend our understanding of the impact of health-related PSA campaigns on parent-child communication patterns and explore these communication patterns as a developmental process over an extended period of time,” said Jonathan L. Blitstein, Ph.D., a research psychologist at RTI and lead author of the study. “We found that mothers and fathers respond differently to these messages and that may be due to the fact that mothers in general are more likely to talk to their children about sensitive topics, such as sexual behavior. We also saw the importance of repeat exposure, which offers multiple opportunities for leaning and persuasion.”

At the conclusion of the study period, fathers exposed to the PSAs communicated with their children about sex at levels that were similar to the baseline level of mothers. These results, researchers said, underscore the potential of fathers to become more involved in talking with their children about potentially sensitive and important topics.

“Given generally low rates at which fathers tend to engage their children in conversations about sex, even modest increases can produce meaningful gains,” Blitstein said.