Understanding Multiple Levels of Norms about Teen Pregnancy and Their Relationships to Teens Sexual Behaviors


Stefanie Mollborn


Ben Domingue


Jason D. Boardman

Year of Publication: 
Advances in Life Course Research

Researchers seeking to understand teen sexual behaviors often turn to age norms, but they are difficult to measure quantitatively. Previous work has usually inferred norms from behavioral patterns or measured group-level norms at the individual level, ignoring multiple reference groups. Capitalizing on the multilevel design of the Add Health survey, we measure teen pregnancy norms perceived by teenagers, as well as average norms at the school and peer network levels. School norms predict boys’ perceived norms, while peer network norms predict girls’ perceived norms. Peer network and individually perceived norms against teen pregnancy independently and negatively predict teens’ likelihood of sexual intercourse. Perceived norms against pregnancy predict increased likelihood of contraception among sexually experienced girls, but sexually experienced boys’ contraceptive behavior is more complicated: When both the boy and his peers or school have stronger norms against teen pregnancy he is more likely to contracept, and in the absence of school or peer norms against pregnancy, boys who are embarrassed are less likely to contracept. We conclude that: (1) patterns of behavior cannot adequately operationalize teen pregnancy norms, (2) norms are not simply linked to behaviors through individual perceptions, and (3) norms at different levels can operate independently of each other, interactively, or in opposition. This evidence creates space for conceptualizations of agency, conflict, and change that can lead to progress in understanding age norms and sexual behaviors.

APA Citation

Mollborn, S., Domingue, B., & Boardman, J. (2014). Understanding Multiple Levels of Norms about Teen Pregnancy and Their Relationships to Teens Sexual Behaviors. Advances in Life Course Research, 20, 1-15.