Teen pregnancy is at a record low in the U.S., and a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may explain why.
The new data, collected from 2011-2013, shows that adolescents are delaying sex, being more responsible with birth control and have better birth control access and perhaps more cultural support than any previously studied generation. Still, there are improvements to be made, particularly for some groups who are at higher risk of pregnancy than their peers. Here's what we learned from the latest data on teens and sex:
Teens Are Having Sex Later
Teens are continuing to delay sex for longer, said the CDC's lead author Gladys Martinez. Back in 1988, 51 percent of teen girls and 60 percent of teen boys reported having sex at least once between the ages of 15 to 19. Now those numbers are 44 percent and 47 percent, respectively, holding steady from a previous CDC report that used data collected between 2006 to 2010.
Teens who delay sex until older adolescence, or age 17 and up, are more likely to use birth control during their first sexual encounter. This is significant, explained Martinez, because teen girls who used birth control that first time were half as likely to become teen moms than those who did not.
"The data on sex activity and contraceptive use, linked together with the data on the probability of having a teen birth, all line up in helping explain the recent decline in teen birth rates,” Martinez concluded.
The chart on the left shows that rates of sexual activity are holding steady with 2006 to 2010 levels, while the chart on the right shows that teens who don't use birth control for their first time are more likely to become pregnant in their teenage years.
Most Teens Use Birth Control
The vast majority of teens (79 percent of girls, and 84 percent of boys) use birth control during their first time, and condoms were their most commonly-reported method. Martinez pointed out that in addition to being cheap and accessible, condoms are the only birth control methods that also protect against disease.
Also of note: Emergency contraception use rose from eight percent in 2002 to 22 percent in 2011-2013.
Professor Claire Brindis, an expert on teen health at the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at University of California, San Francisco, thinks that the report’s findings are “great news” for American teens. Brindis credited everything from the Affordable Care Act to condom visibility in films -- look no further than the recent “Trainwreck” for evidence -- for higher rates of birth control use and the continued delay of teens' first sexual experience. She also said that changing social norms about a woman’s sexuality have contributed to smarter sexual choices in teens.
“In the previous decade, if a girl had a condom with her, there was a fear she’d be called a slut,” said Brindis. “But a woman’s right to be protected against an unintended pregnancy or STD or HIV has become a greater part of the social norm, so those numbers have been increasing over time."
The graphic above shows that while condoms are the most popular method of birth control at 97 percent, withdrawal comes in second at 60 percent. The pill, the patch and depo provera, a hormonal injection, are on the decline, while emergency contraception and hormonal implants are up.
Despite Progress, Teen Pregnancy Is Still A Problem
Considering how dicey the withdrawal method is as a means of birth control (Planned Parenthood warns it takes a great deal of "self-control, experience, and trust”), it’s alarming to see how many teens report having used it at least once to avoid pregnancy. But Martinez notes that it mirrors adult use; 60 percent of U.S. women also report using withdrawal at least once.
Brindis also emphasized that this data shows “ever use,” as in, has a person ever used a given method of birth control, even one time. By no means does it indicate that withdrawal is some teens’ primary method of birth control, she said. Instead, high pullout rates mean simply that adults have to do a better job helping teens anticipate sexual encounters.
"It may not be the best safety net, but it is a safety net that young people may have to rely on when they’re caught in the moment,” she said. "We have to help young people anticipate what happens in that moment."
The bottom line here: the kids are alright, but we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back just yet. U.S. teen pregnancy rates, while historically low at 26.5 per 1,000 women, are still the highest among nations that track this sort of data.
"We’re not in the promised land yet, but we’re going in the right direction and it’s taken a whole village to make an impact on this issue," said Brindis. If the U.S. wants to continue on this path, she said, the country needs to start zeroing in on at-risk teen subgroups that still might see parenthood as a more fulfilling and realistic path than college or career training.
"We need jobs and we need kids to graduate from high school," Brindis concluded. "These kinds of strategies that go beyond the availability of condoms and clinics are a very important part of the formula."