Family Matters

The Results Are In: First National Study of Teen Masturbation

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Masturbation has long been considered a normal sexual behavior for children, and now the first nationally representative study of the practice finds — er, confirms — that teen boys, more so than girls, do it early and often.

Masturbation is no laughing matter, argues lead author Dr. Cynthia Robbins, from the pediatrics department at Indiana University in Indianapolis (IU). It remains highly stigmatized and receives little serious attention, but her research shows that it can also influence teens in other aspects of sexuality. Teens who masturbate, for example, also seem to be more likely to have sex with a partner and to practice safe sex, according to the research, which was published online this month in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

“It is important to let adolescents know about masturbation because they may receive either no information or mixed messages on masturbation, yet it is a major way adolescents express sexuality,” Robbins wrote in an e-mail.

MORE: Who Are Teens’ Sexual Role Models? Turns Out, It’s Their Parents

Robbins looked at 2009 data from 800 teens who participated in the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB). The adolescents ranged in age from 14 — by which time masturbation prevalence is pretty high — to 17. Teens (and their parents) were asked how frequently they had masturbated during the previous three months, the previous year and in general. They also responded to questions about condom use and if they masturbated alone or with a partner.

Researchers found that boys — but not girls — who masturbated appeared more likely to use condoms during intercourse.

Boys took more pleasure in self-pleasure: half said they masturbated at least twice a week, but only 23% of girls reported the same frequency. While fewer than half of girls reported ever masturbating, the survey found that close to three-quarters of boys said they did.

As children got older, they appeared more likely to masturbate. Just 63% of younger boys of reported masturbating at least once, but that figure increased to 80% among 17-year-olds. For girls, the percentage rose with age from 43% to 58%.

For boys and girls, masturbation was linked with an increased likelihood of oral sex and intercourse. For girls alone, it was also associated with a greater tendency for mutual masturbation and anal intercourse.

MORE: 4 Out of 5 College Kids Sext

That girls report less masturbation than boys may not necessarily reflect reality; instead, it could have more to do with societal stigma surrounding girls and masturbation. Researchers didn’t attempt to explain the discrepancies in this study.

But Robbins calls masturbation a “fundamental component” of teen sexuality that’s worthy of a deeper look. Stop snickering.

“In order to fully understand sexuality during adolescence, masturbation’s role needs to be acknowledged and studied further,” she writes.

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.


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I quit masturbating in late 2004. Thanks to quitting, I was able to gain strength and muscle in the gym, my lifelong brainfog is lifting, I have more energy, and I look younger than my age. I have a blog about my experience at


Boys tend to masturbate from an earlier age than girls mainly because a boys genitals and penis are outside their body and more obvious to touch and feel.  Both boys and girls discover masturabtion "by accident", usually rubbing up against a pillow in bed or in the case of boys holding their penis. 

In the latter case, boys from a young age, find that their penis can go from small to large (flaccid to erection) if they hold it tight it enough to stop them from wetting.   A penis is more obvious to touch and explore than the female genitals, mainly because 90% of the girls genitals are inside the area of the vulva.  That said girls also can find out about masturbations (but not in the aduly sense) when they find pleasure in rubbing their vulva against something like the bars of a cot; particularly if they not wearting a diaper or nappy.   Even boys can find a pleasure in rubbinh the lower section of the abdoment against say something like a pillow or cusiion which fits between their legs.  Both boys and girls, once they have found their pleasure, will usually start using their fingers to investigate. 

This frightens many parents as they do not like to see their 6 or 7 year old being able to gain pleasure for touching themselves, in what parents would call their " private areas".  Children, and I now include pre-pubescents can find themselves pulling down their dresses or knickers at home and touching themseleves.  For the parent this is embarrassing, but of the child an nautral exention of exploring their bodies.   It is important not to stigmatise the behaviour, but just make it clear that it is something they do in private, on their own and not in say the living room .   If as a parent you just tactfully pick up the (smaller) child and take them outside of the room, pull up their trousers and underware and just calmly say " that is something you do in private".  Also, in the case of boys particularly, make sure that they were actually desperate to go to the toilets as opposed to masturbating in the sexual sense. 

A small boy can get an erection if he is "holding on" to stop himself from wetting, as the pressure in a very full bladder can force blood in to the penis and make it erect.  Once the boy has passed water, then the erection will quickly subside.  However that will not stop the boy from experimenting further; again it is something that you make clear that he does in private. 

Beacuse a girls genitals are mainly inside her body, the only sensitive areas are the vulva and the outer labia. Again, this is usually discovered by accident, such as touching her self in the bath, partcularly if you have washed her around that area as part of the bath routine to keep her clean  If he or she starts doing that fruquently, then suggest that they take the flannel from you and let them wash themselves around that area.  That endorses the message that their genitals are private. 

The same applies for boys, and they shoulf be taught how to retract their forskin and wash around the glans of the penis to keep it clean.  Bear in mind that not all boys can fully retract their foreskin at the same age; but equally irritants found in urine, can get behind the foreskine making it itchy.  Again that could mean the boy grasping the shaft of the (non erect) penis and rubbing it to get the irritant out.    

 There are two answers to this: 

1. If the boy is sitting in the bath, so that his genitals are under water, pulling is foreskin back will allow the bath water to take away the Amonias  whoch are part of urine; the same applies to girls. However in girls it is imprortant that they are taught to wipe the bottoms after deffication from the vulva backwards to the buttocks to stop any irritants entering the genital area. 

2.  In the case of both girls and boy, allowing them to rub an anticeptic gel (nothing strong) and allowing them to wash it away with a lower pressure makes them realise that having the anus and the genital area so close together that it can cause problems with hygine particularly where both faceas and urine are concerned; again more so with girls than boys. 

Above all, it is important for the small child to realise that the (genital) area is private and that anyone should ask permission to touch it, and certainly not allow a stranger to do so.  If it is a doctor then that is OK, but make them aware that most doctors where white coats or frocks (for women), but if they are worried, they should not do do.   Usually in school scenarios, the genitals are not inspected anyway; and even at the GP Practise it would be expected that a parent or a  known carer or relation such as an aunt or uncle would be allowed to be present.   That makes the child realise the difference between (what adults woud call) molestation and examination.  In England, back in the 1960s health check us by the "school doctor" were conducted at least twice a year" (Whooping Cough, Asthma and heart conditions were starting to be recognised more and easier treat at an earlier stage; the big Measels out break in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a major problem and those at high risk needed to be isolated. to that end the parent or guardian was expected to attend the examination and if there were concerns of risk, the child taken to hospital for immediate vaccination.   

As an aside, the bi-annual examinations also allowed the "school" doctor to check whether there were any unusual scars or bruises to the child indicating abuse. Social services could be quickly instructed to intervene.  Children can easily be misled by adults (includng parents and immediate relaitions) who can assert their authority on the child and most oftern a child is told to respect their elders whishes; again they need to be told the difference between what is normal and that which you or another grown up should be told about. Further that there is nothing wrong with telling another grown up, even the would be abuser has told them " not to tell or something nasty will happen", if they do tell.  

Sorry that this has gone off on a tangent, but the fact is that masturbation cannot be just a sign of "growing up", but a  five or seven year old doing it publcly, may be of concern.