Parents play an important role when it comes to shaping the values and sexual decision-making skills of their children, but many parents find it awkward to talk with their kids about sex. This is unfortunate since sex ed programs that involve parents and teens tend to lead to safer sexual practices among adolescents, a new study finds.

The results are based on a meta-analysis of data from nearly 12,500 teens who participated in trials of parent-based sexual health interventions over a period of almost 30 years. Researchers at North Carolina State University and the University of Pittsburgh looked at how these programs affected the age at which adolescents became sexually active, their rate of condom use, and how parents and teens communicated about sex.

The findings should be reassuring to parents who fear that talking to their kids about sex could lead to their kids having sex.

Interventions that involved parents were associated with more frequent condom use among adolescents and better parent-child communication about sex, compared to interventions that did not include them. And teens whose parents counseled them about sex didn't have sex sooner than those whose parents didn't.

“This should be reassuring to parents who fear that talking to their kids about sex could lead to their kids having sex,” said researcher, Sophia Choukas-Bradley, of the University of Pittsburgh. Many factors influence the timing of adolescents’ sexual initiation, so while it may be difficult to delay adolescents’ sexual activity, talking to them about sex will not cause them to become sexually active sooner, she added.

The researchers also found interventions aimed at those 14 years old or younger were more effective than those targeting older teens; interventions that targeted parents and adolescents equally were more effective than those focused primarily on either group; interventions targeting black or Latino youth were more effective than non-culturally specific interventions; and interventions lasting a total of 10 hours or more were more effective than shorter interventions.

Only two of the 31 studies the researchers reviewed in the current analysis involved newer technologies such as online programs and smartphone apps, but Choukas-Bradley and her team have recently completed another meta-analysis and found programs delivered through technology were effective at promoting safer sex, adding, “In the future, we need more technology-based programs to increase the speed at which we can deliver this important information to parents and kids,” she said.

Teens who identify as LGBTQ need special consideration, and the content of these programs can be customized for adolescents’ specific needs. Although none of the studies included in the current meta-analysis focused on the specific needs of this group, as Choukas-Bradley puts it, “We must develop programs that help parents meet these needs effectively.”

The study and a related editorial are published in JAMA Pediatrics.