College years are the time when a young adult has more independence, but it is also a period when he or she faces greater responsibilities and is preparing for the real world.
How a student succeeds at juggling all these conflicting factors without falling into the dark pit of stress and anxiety can be a challenge.
With that in mind, researchers at the University of Illinois discovered a link between a college student's emotional instability and their sexual behavior.
In a new study featured in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, they explained that the more instability and stress a college student has in his or her own life, the more likely they are to engage in risky sexual behavior.
Jill Bowers, a human development and family studies researcher, said that most college students go through periods of instability caused by changes in their lives.
Some college students move out of their parents' house, and some move back in. Some change residences, friends, romantic partners, employment, college majors or roommates.
"They may drop out of college, re-enroll, or transfer to another university. And some experience more transitional instability than others," said Bowers.
Young adults between 18 to 25 years old have more freedom from their parents compared to teenagers, Bowers said. At their age, they may be in a phase of romantic exploration and experimentation because of their newfound freedom.
During stressful situations, these young adults may exhaust the emotional resources that keep them from performing risky behaviors, making them lose their ability to think rationally, Bowers said.
Risky sex was defined in the study using three categories: casual or unplanned sex with strangers or friends, impulsive sexual behavior, and sex with uncommitted partners.
Bowers and her colleagues surveyed 398 young adults at two universities in the United States. Of the participants, 100 were male and 290 were female, while eight participants did not indicate their sex. These participants were all under the legal drinking age of 21.
The researchers assessed the participants regarding the frequency of their sexual behavior, their psychological well-being and their motivations for drinking. Factors such as loneliness, depression, dysfunctional drinking motivations, and drinking to gain peer acceptance or ease emotional pain had increased the link between sexual risk-taking and instability, they said.
Many universities require the completion of an alcohol prevention program before students start their first year in college, but she believes their message misses the point.
Bowers recommends university programs aim more toward teaching college students how to manage loneliness and stress, achieve balance between work and life, cope with changes in relationships, and boost their self-esteem instead of just repeating the phrase "Don't drink" over and over.