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AIDS: Late Adolescents’ Knowledge

Roscoe, B. & Kruger, T.L. (1990). AIDS: Late Adolescents’ Knowledge and its Influence on Sexual Behavior. Adolescence, XXV(97), 39-47.

How much do adolescents know about AIDS? Why, amidst the multitude of sexually transmitted diseases, do adolescents continue to have sex? As adults working in the lives of adolescents, it is important to explore the answers to these questions.


Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), one of the fastest growing concerns in the United States today, is a complex disease characterized by a collapse of the body’s natural immunity against disease. The virus is spread through unprotected sexual contact, sharing intravenous needles, or receiving transfusions of infected blood.


Approximately 300 late adolescents were surveyed to assess their knowledge of AIDS, and to ascertain if and how their sexual behavior had changed as a result.


A survey was mailed to 750 randomly selected juniors and seniors enrolled in a medium-sized midwestern university. The survey consisted of a cover letter assuring anonymity and a self-addressed stamped envelope. The survey consisted of three sections:

  • 28 AIDS knowledge questions taken from DiClemente et al. (1986).
  • 10 demographic items.
  • An open-ended question concerning changes in sexual behavior as a result of a fear of AIDS. Two hundred fifty-five of the returned surveys were usable, 166 respondents being female and 89 being male.


The findings suggest that late adolescents are quite knowledgeable regarding AIDS and its transmission; however, only about one-third alter their sexual behavior as a result of fear of the disease. There are two sections involved in the findings: AIDS knowledge and changes in sexual behavior.

  • AIDS knowledge. Two thirds of the questions were answered correctly by 90% or more of the adolescents. On only one item, concerning the cause of AIDS, did fewer than half (42%) answer correctly. A comparison of late adolescents’ knowledge relative to various demographic variables yielded minimal differences. The only statistically significant differences occurred on the basis of sex. Significantly more females knew that women are not more likely to get AIDS during their period, and more males knew that the cause of AIDS has been found.
  • Changes in sexual behavior. Nearly 33% of the females and 37% of the males indicated they had made some change in their sexual behavior as a result of the threat of AIDS. Therefore, 67% of the females and 63% of the males had not changed their behavior.


The results were congruent with those of earlier studies which found that AIDS had a limited effect on the way young people conduct their sexual lives. There are two reasons this may be true:

  • Individuals may not accept AIDS as a personal problem. They believe it is a concern for "other people," or that it "is just ‘media hype’ and decide that AIDS is not a problem they have to worry about." Most young people do not yet know anyone in their age group with AIDS, because the incubation period of symptomatic HIV infection is often as long as five to ten years. Since they do not see the immediate negative consequences of unprotected sex, they assume they are not susceptible.
  • Another possible explanation is that the late adolescents who participated in this study were already practicing "safe sex." The 66% who did not report a change in their sexual behavior did not say they were not practicing safe sex. It is possible they were already engaging in safe-sex practices prior to the AIDS scare in order to prevent other sexually transmitted diseases or to prevent pregnancy.


This study is important because this information could prove beneficial in developing AIDS education programs targeted for adolescents, and it contains sufficient information for people working with young people in this area.



  1. How can youth workers better educate adolescents on the consequences of unprotected sex?
  2. Should condoms be given to high school students? To college students?
  3. Should the school teach adolescents about sex and AIDS? Should parents? Youth organizations? The church?



    • Adolescents generally are knowledgeable regarding AIDS; yet, this knowledge does not seem to result in a dramatic change in sexual behavior.
    • Recent research suggests that knowledge alone will not alter sexual behavior. Rather, successful AIDS education must be integrated.
    • Youth workers, counselors, and educators need to provide explicit opportunities for discussion and education. It is important to be direct and open when discussing safe sex, safer sex, and safest sex (abstinence), and to communicate on a level to which their audience can relate.
    • Developmental counseling needs to be offered. Young people need to be aware that they have control over their sexual behavior, and that they are responsible for themselves.
    • Increased attention must be directed to young people, since they are more sexually active than the population at large and therefore at greater risk.
    • Adults working in the lives of adolescents are responsible for supporting them and helping them take control of this area of their lives.
Debbie Broadfield cCYS