Rates of teenage pregnancy in the U.S. may be at their lowest for 40 years, but are still among the highest in the world's most developed nations. While being pregnant isn't the worst thing that could happen to a teenager, most parents agree that having a baby is best done later in life. Life experience, financial stability and secure relationships all make that parenting journey much easier.
So how do we stop the one in six 15-year-old females who currently give birth by their 20th birthdays? Shaming and stigmatizing teenage parenthood in the name of "prevention" might stop some teenagers from having sex, but is this the right approach? Bearing in mind changing attitudes towards sex, what really prevents teen pregnancy?
A recent study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, suggests that girls whose friends have become teen parents are less likely to get pregnant themselves. Of the 595 teenage girls from across the U.S. who were interviewed several times over a number of years, those whose friends became teen mothers were less likely to have sex, get pregnant or get married as teens, and more likely to get a college degree. Rather than want to follow in their friends’ footsteps, it seems that teenage girls are learning from their friends’ mistakes — when it comes to teen pregnancy, at least.
The researchers believe that exposure to the realities of pregnancy and parenthood — stigma, ostracization from society, and an adverse impact on education and social life — is more effective in preventing teen pregnancy than reading about it in books or hearing it from an adult.
Watching the lives of teenage mothers on the TV screen could help prevent your own teen from becoming pregnant, according to a 2014 study carried out by the National Bureau of Economic Research that claimed the MTV show 16 and Pregnant and its spinoff Teen Mom reduced teen births by nearly 6 percent in 2010. The study also asserted that the rate of teenage pregnancy declined faster in areas where teenagers were watching more MTV shows.
Whenever the shows air, MTV promotes a website called StayTeen.org that "encourage[s] you to enjoy your teen years and avoid the responsibilities that come with too-early pregnancy and parenting" and provides information about birth control and STDs. Of course, watching the teenage moms-to-be cope with the challenges of pregnancy, child birth and parenting could be the reason teen viewers decide to postpone parenthood until later life.
On the other hand, watching sexual content on television may be connected with higher rates of teen pregnancy. A 2008 RAND Corporation study suggests that adolescents who watch a lot of TV shows with sexual content are twice as likely to become pregnant, or impregnate someone, as their peers who watched fewer shows of this kind. The lead author of the study recommended that parents use sex scenes on TV as a "teachable moment" — so rather than stop your teen watching this type of program altogether (an impossible task), take the opportunity to sit down and watch it with them, and discuss what they've seen and how their teen could learn from it.
One of the simplest ways to reduce risky sexual behavior and pregnancy rates in teenage girls may be to encourage them to participate in sports, says the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF). In 1995, the WSF conducted a "Youth Risk Behavior Survey" in U.S. high schools, asking questions about sports and risky sexual behavior. It found a correlation between young females athlete and lower teen pregnancy rates, a later age of first having sexual intercourse, a greater likelihood of using contraception and fewer sexual partners over the course of a year. Of course, this isn't the same as causing lower teen pregnancy rates, but with all the other benefits of physical activity (such as improved self esteem, reduced stress and anxiety and a healthier body image), encouraging your teen to participate in sports can only be a positive thing.
Talking to your teen about sex isn’t always easy, for the parent or the child. But overcoming communication barriers can be instrumental in preventing teenage pregnancy. According to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, teens say their parents influence their decisions about sex, love and relationships more than their peers or the media. Sex is a topic that should be spoken about openly, without judgment or reproach, long before a child becomes a teenager. And it shouldn’t be thought of as just one "talk," but rather an ongoing conversation over many years.
Preventing teenagers from engaging in all sexual behavior could actually lead to a greater chance of teen pregnancy, according to 2009 data from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB.) The research found that boys (but not girls) who masturbate regularly are more likely to practice safe sex. The distinction between male and female adolescents may be down to the possibility that girls are more reluctant to talk about masturbation. The message for parents is clear: masturbation is a natural part of adolescence and shouldn't be treated as unhealthy or taboo.
For the teenagers who don't decide to abstain from sex, educating them about the different contraceptive methods is imperative. Teenage boys and girls need to know what options are available to them, such as condoms, birth control pills, the patch, the vaginal ring, the IUD and injectable birth control. In one study, when mothers discussed condom use before teens initiated sexual intercourse, young people were three times more likely to use condoms than teens whose mothers never discussed condoms, or discussed condoms only after teens became sexually active. Additionally, young people who used condoms the first time they had sex were 20 times more likely to continue to use condoms than other teens.
As a parent, the responsibility for preventing your teen's pregnancy is firmly at your feet. Get the conversation started early, remove the stigma attached to sex and sexuality and provide all the practical information in easy-to-digest language.
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