More rigorous evidence necessary on role of peers in adolescent sexual behaviour

Is the sexual behaviour of young people in sub-Saharan Africa influenced by their peers? A systematic review.

Fearon E, Wiggins RD, Pettifor AE, Hargreaves JR. Soc Sci Med. 2015 Oct 9;146:62-74. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.09.039. [Epub ahead of print]

Adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa are highly vulnerable to HIV, other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unintended pregnancies. Evidence for the effectiveness of individual behaviour change interventions in reducing incidence of HIV and other biological outcomes is limited, and the need to address the social conditions in which young people become sexually active is clear. Adolescents' peers are a key aspect of this social environment and could have important influences on sexual behaviour. There has not yet been a systematic review on the topic in sub-Saharan Africa. We searched 4 databases to find studies set in sub-Saharan Africa that included an adjusted analysis of the association between at least one peer exposure and a sexual behaviour outcome among a sample where at least 50% of the study participants were aged between 13 and 20 years. We classified peer exposures using a framework to distinguish different mechanisms by which influence might occur. We found 30 studies and retained 11 that met quality criteria. There were 3 cohort studies, 1 time to event and 7 cross-sectional. The 11 studies investigated 37 different peer exposure-outcome associations. No studies used a biological outcome and all asked about peers in general rather than about specific relationships. Studies were heterogeneous in their use of theoretical frameworks and means of operationalizing peer influence concepts. All studies found evidence for an association between peers and sexual behaviour for at least one peer exposure/outcome/sub-group association. Of all 37 outcome/exposure/sub-group associations tested, there was evidence for 19 (51%). There were no clear patterns by type of peer exposure, outcome or adolescent sub-group. There is a lack of conclusive evidence about the role of peers in adolescent sexual behaviour in sub-Saharan Africa. We argue that longitudinal designs, use of biological outcomes and approaches from social network analysis are priorities for future studies.

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Editor’s notes: This is the first quantitative systematic review of the role of peers in shaping young people’s sexual behaviour in sub-Saharan Africa. Each of the 11 higher-quality studies included found evidence for at least one association between a peer exposure and a sexual behaviour outcome. But overall, no clear patterns were found for the conditions in which peer exposures might, or might not, impact sexual behaviour. The mixed findings may highlight inherent difficulties with assessing such associations, such as reverse causation in cross-sectional studies (e.g. selection of peers based on established sexual behaviour), and reliance on self-reported sexual behaviour (likely to be a particular problem among adolescents). One interesting aspect of the paper was the classification of peer exposures into one of six types (including peer approval, peer connectedness, and status within peer networks). Given the likely importance of peers in adolescent behaviour, methods that collect information about specific peers and relationships such as social network analysis, rather than asking about peers in general, could help to identify peer effects.

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