In this introductory article of this special issue, we introduce Project STARS (Studies on Trajectories of Adolescent Relationships and Sexuality), a longitudinal research program on the development of romantic relationships and sexuality of adolescents in the Netherlands, which was conducted between 2010 and 2015, and was funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Fund for Scientific Research of Sexuality (FWOS), as part of the NWO program Youth and Family. The research program consisted of four interrelated sub-projects. In each of these sub-projects, longitudinal data from 1,297 adolescents were used. In addition, several quantitative and qualitative in-depth studies were conducted within each of the sub-projects. In this article, the background, the design and the innovative aspects of Project STARS are discussed.
This article describes findings of the third Project STARS sub-project, which investigated the role of the Internet in adolescent sexual development. The empirical studies that are conducted within this sub-project aimed to offer more insight into (1) the prevalence and development of different sex-related online behaviors in adolescence; (2) their longitudinal associations with sexual cognitions, behaviors, and emotions; and (3) how sex-related Internet use is embedded in personal and social contexts. The findings suggest that for most adolescents, engagement in most sex-related online behaviors is much less excessive than is often assumed or feared. Nonetheless, the longitudinal and qualitative data confirm theoretical assumptions by showing that sex-related online behaviors may, through a variety of mechanisms, shape adolescents’ sexual developmental processes. Furthermore, the findings highlight that sexrelated Internet use does not occur in isolation, but is intertwined with various intra- and interpersonal processes. For example, sex-related behaviors were found to predict increases in adolescents’ perceptions that sexual behavior is common and accepted among peers, which in turn predicted increases in their own experience with sexual behavior. Moreover, the various studies showed that many congruencies exist between adolescents’ own dispositions, developmental interests, and social setting on the one hand and their patterns of sex-related Internet use on the other hand. The findings of this sub-project contribute to theory and knowledge about the role of the Internet in adolescent sexual development. They also contain relevant implications for parents, schools and intervention developers who strive to promote a healthy and positive sexual development.