Q&A: New Trends in Teen Pregnancy Prevention

Map of the United States.

In February, the Guttmacher Institute released “Facts on American Teens' Sexual and Reproductive Health,” a survey of over two-dozen recent studies and publications on the topic of adolescent sexual behavior. This is the first such survey from the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that promotes sexual and reproductive health, since 2009.

Laura Lindberg, a senior research associate at Guttmacher, spoke with NCFY about the report’s implications for youth workers and organizations that aim to prevent teen preganancy.

NCFY: Can you summarize the general trends in teen pregnancy and contraception?    

LINDBERG: The major trends are first, a decline in teen pregnancy over the last two decades. It’s been declining relatively steadily since a high in 1991. And second, there has been a slight delay in the onset of sexual activity—that is, teens are waiting longer to have sex. I use the word “slight” because,  for example, 15 and 16 year olds tend to be waiting until they’re 17 to have sex, but by age 19 there’s been little change. They’re not waiting until they get married or even until they’re 25.

Even more dramatic is the increase in contraception use over the last twenty years. It’s an extraordinary social change [to see this many] adolescents using contraception. A large portion of that shift is a rise in condom use. So we need to remember that when we talk about teen pregnancy prevention, teenage boys are playing a large role in this. Over this same time, access to condoms and the social messaging around them have changed dramatically.

NCFY: What practices or policies seem to have created these trends?

LINDBERG: Certainly, HIV education. As a society, in the mid-80s and early-90s we started talking about HIV in a public way—a way that sex had never been discussed before. Teens in 2010 might not be concerned about AIDS, but the whole cultural environment had been changed. We had to talk with teens about sex. As a result, many topics of discussion—including condoms and safe sex—have been de-stigmatized.

As for the delay in sexual behavior, we’ve seen a greater emphasis on talking to teens about waiting until they’re ready. There’s a greater understanding that sex is part of developmentally appropriate maturity.

NCFY: According to the fact sheet, “Seventy percent of male teens and 79% of female teens report talking with a parent about at least one of six sex education topics.” What can youth workers take from this, assuming many of their clients won’t have these kinds of discussions at home?

LINDBERG: The research shows that when parents talk with teens about sex, what’s important is that they share their values, not just a specific piece of information. And the Adolescent Health Survey points to the importance of teens’ relationships with caring adults, which don’t necessarily have to be parents. When there’s some adult that a youth feels connected to, that’s someone they might take information and values from.

Youth workers have the potential to be that connected adult in teens’ lives, or to bring youth into contact with those people. Additionally, youth-serving programs provide an alternate forum—besides the family, besides school—to supplement and fill in gaps that teens aren’t getting in these other places. Some teens learn better in different environments. If they didn’t learn something in school, or didn’t learn it at home for whatever reason, maybe they will learn in a more youth-focused setting.

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