Girls with early puberty, older boyfriends at greater risk for drugs, sex, alcohol

March 16, 2007
Teenaged girls who mature physically sooner than their peers and who also have a romantic partner at least two years older have a higher risk for substance abuse, sex and a combination of sex and drug use, according to a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study.

Photograph of Dr. Carolyn Tucker Halpern

Photograph of Dr. Carolyn Tucker Halpern

“Adolescent girls and boys all are at risk for experimenting with sex, alcohol and drugs,” said Carolyn Tucker Halpern, associate professor of maternal and child health in the UNC School of Public Health. “Those who mature early are known to be at higher risk for these problems. But within that group, girls who have an older boyfriend appear to be at an extra risk for multiple high-risk behaviors such as intravenous drug use, marijuana use and sexual intercourse.”

The study was based on a nationally representative sample of about 4,000 adolescents who participated in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The students were under age 15 for the first part of the study, carried out during the 1994-1995 school year, and have been tracked since then through follow-up surveys. The results are published in the March 2007 issue of the journal Prevention Science.

One in five teen girls in the study who started maturing physically earlier than their peers reported having a romantic partner who was older, compared to only one in 25 males who matured. There were not enough boys with older girlfriends in the study to allow researchers to draw any conclusions about whether older partners increased the boys’ danger for engaging in risky behaviors. However, having a romantic partner of any age increased the likelihood of risk behavior for both boys and girls.

More than 40 percent of the teens in the study reported having no romantic partners, and more than 36 percent of girls and 47 percent of boys had romantic partners of the same age or younger.

Halpern said this research should be a caution for parents.

“Parents of all teenagers have a responsibility for talking to their children and guiding them through romantic relationships and the risks of drug use,” she said. “But this study shows that parents of girls who reach puberty ahead of the peers and who have an older boyfriend should take a special interest.”

The study was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health.

Other authors of the study are: Christine Kaestle, assistant professor of human development at Virginia Polytechnic and State University, who recently received her Ph.D. from UNC School of Public Health; and Denise Dion Hallfors, senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Chapel Hill.


Note: Halpern can be reached at (919) 966-4462 or

School of Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, (919) 966-7467,

News Services contact: Becky Oskin, (919) 962-8596,