Faculty Research Spotlight
Kristin Moilanen, PhD
Department of Learning Sciences and Human Development
As a high school student, Dr. Kristin Moilanen wondered what led some of her peers to engage in risky sexual behaviors (specifically, having sex without contraception and/or with more than one partner in a committed relationship) while others chose not to. This question led her to pursue degrees in developmental psychology and become a “scholar of adolescence,” as she puts it, and it has been the driving force of her research ever since, as she has strived to uncover developmental predictors for risky behaviors in adolescents and young adults.
Moilanen went on to pursue her undergraduate degree in psychology at Albion College in Michigan and her master’s and doctoral degrees in developmental psychology at the University of Nebraska. During her postdoctoral fellowship, Moilanen became associated with the Pitt Parents and Children Laboratory, which conducted an ongoing study of boys from low-income communities Pittsburgh who have been shown to have a greater likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors due to their socio-economic status.
The study has followed the boys from birth to adulthood, attempting to identify patterns that differentiate those engaging in risky behaviors from those engaging in fewer of those behaviors. According to Moilanen, some of the study’s most compelling findings have stemmed from measurements collected when the boys were just 18 months old. The same boys who were temperamentally difficult at a young age and who did not have secure attachments with their mothers, ended up on a pathway of risky behavior that lasted well into their adolescence, in contrast with their better adjusted peers.
The idea that early parent-child interactions have an influence on individuals’ propensities to engage in risky behaviors in adolescence is central to Moilanen’s research at West Virginia University, which she explains as involving three prongs: Parent-child relationships, the development of self-control and risk behavior involvement.
According to Moilanen, the burden of having to deal with rocky relationships with parents or guardians at a young age inhibits children from acquiring the skills they need to mature emotionally, particularly when it comes to developing self-control in the face of temptation and the ability to formulate and work toward long-term goals.
“Teenagers and adults who can resist temptations in the moment are, as a result, going to have an easier time working toward distant goals, and the opposite is true for people who aren’t able to control themselves in the moment,” Moilanen explains.
“We think what happens in unstable homes is that children get so upset when they’re fighting with their parents that they become overwhelmed and are unable to learn the self-control they need later in life. Additionally, they become so focused on trying to make themselves feel better or trying to stop household conflicts that they’re unable to think about their own futures.”
Logically, adolescents and young adults who lack long-term goals and have trouble controlling their urges are more likely to engage in risky behaviors. This also explains why, in contrast, teenagers who excel in school are less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors and are more likely to wait longer to have sex, are more likely to have sex with only one partner in a committed relationship and are more likely to be adamant about using contraception: high academic achievement requires adolescents to have long-term goals and a high degree of personal investment in their futures, which should lower their chances of engaging in risky behaviors.
Although Moilanen’s research focuses primarily on risky sexual behavior, she says that the same rules of psychological development likely apply to all risky behaviors typically associated with adolescents and young adults, such as substance abuse and delinquency.
“We can’t really understand sexual risk-taking without also understanding other forms of risk behavior and adjustment,” Moilanen says.
In addition to her research on the motivations of teens, Moilanen is in the process of publishing a report on something else entirely; parents, and how they make decisions about whether or not to allow their teenaged children to participate in surveys polling about sex. Moilanen decided to conduct this research in response to a practical problem.
“It’s really hard to do sexual risk-taking research right now because schools are skittish about it. It’s a sensitive topic with teenagers, and some of the parents in the study are concerned that asking questions about sex will give their teenagers ‘bad ideas,’” Moilanen says.
She explains that there is no evidence to suggest that these parents’ fears actually play out, and that they don’t really make sense, given all the sexual media that is already available to teens outside the classroom. Fortunately, not all parents have such fears about their children’s impressionability.
“We’ve found that there’s a set of characteristics that are predictors of how likely parents are to give permission or not,” Moilanen says. “Parents are more likely to give permission if they’re outgoing, have favorable attitudes about sexuality in teenagers, are positive about science and think their teens are already sexually active.”
This research, which is in the process of publication, has potentially far-reaching effects for Moilanen and other developmental psychologists. The data she has collected will help researchers recruit participants for future studies on sexual risk-taking, and it will contribute to the advancement of our knowledge of the formative years of adolescence.
Dr. Kristin Moilanen is an associate professor of child development and family studies in the Department of Learning Sciences and Human Development in West Virginia University’s College of Education and Human Services and the recent winner of the CEHS 2016 Outstanding Researcher Award. She earned her undergraduate degree in psychology at Albion College in 1999 and her master’s and doctoral degrees in developmental psychology at the University of Nebraska in 2002 and 2005.