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Fewer US Teens Sexually Active

May 30, 2009

National data shows a “dramatic” rise in the number U.S. teenagers choosing to abstain from sex between 1992 and 2002, while the use of contraceptives among those who are sexually active has similarly shot up, according to a new report.

The most recent reports from the period after 2002, however, show that teen pregnancy rates are once again starting to climb.  According to the report’s lead author Dr. Jennifer Manlove from Child Trends in Washington, D.C., this indicates that more work needs to be done.

“We need to continue to focus on this issue into the future to help reduce high rates of teen childbirth in the U.S., especially since things are trending in the opposite direction right now,” Dr. Manlove told reporters.

In the report published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, she and her colleagues examined statistics provided by the National Survey of Family Growth, looking specifically at the years 1992, 1997 and 2002 in an attempt to evaluate the role that factors like family environment, individual personality characteristics and relationship types had on teen sexual behavior.

Among the positive trends observed by the research group was a general decline in sexual activity in both boys and girls between the ages of 15 and 19.  The number of female teens having sex fell from 56 percent in 1992 to 47 percent in 2002, while the percentage of teen males having sex fell from 61 percent to 46 percent during the same period.

After a close analysis of the data, Manlove and her colleagues say they believe these downward trends to be a direct result of better educated parents and a reduced number of teens who themselves had been born to teenage mothers.

The study also showed that use of contraceptives between 1992 and 2002 rose from 62 percent to 72 percent for girls and from 65 percent to 78 percent for boys.

Additionally, the group found that teens were generally waiting longer before having sex for the first time, a fact which likely helps to explain some of the other trends.

The frequent of media reports in recent years claiming that teenagers are “hooking up” more than ever were not corroborated by the report.  “Based on these data we did not see any increase in casual sex,” stated the researchers.

Manlove says they are unsure about what’s behind the recent resurgence in teen pregnancy, though she suspects that incessant media coverage of teen moms like Bristol Palin and Jamie Lynn Spears has perhaps given teen pregnancy a shade of normalcy. 

“There has been a lot of media attention given to pregnant teens.  You can’t underestimate the power of the media,” she said.

Manlove stressed that while having the “sex talk” with children is important, a parent’s best weapon against teen pregnancy is to simply focus on maintaining overall good communication with their adolescent kids.  Simple family activities like eating dinner together seem to have an impact on reducing the likelihood of teen pregnancy, she explained.

She also said that when talking to their children, parents should try to help their teens become future-oriented by encouraging them to develop plans and goals for their future.  Studies support this advice, showing that adolescents who have college plans and begin thinking early about their careers are far less likely to become teen parents.

“I think there’s a lot parents can do,” said Dr. Manlove.

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