Teen pregnancies at all-time low. Is peer influence responsible?

The decline in the teen pregnancy rates is due to several factors, including contraceptives and education. But teenagers are also waiting longer to have sex.

J. Pat Carter/AP/File
Teenage girls learn parenting lessons during a July 2008 girl scout program on teen pregnancy in Miami, Florida.

Birthrates among American teenagers have hit a new low, falling more than 40 percent within the past decade, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

"Tremendous progress has been made nationwide in all 50 states and among all racial and ethnic groups," Bill Albert, chief program officer for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. 

The decline highlights a trend observed since 1991, when the birth rates stood at 61.8 births per 1,000 teen women. The highest drop was recorded in 2014, when the birth rate fell 9 percent in a single year. The decline among minority teens is even more notable, falling by 44 percent among black women and 51 percent among Hispanic women since 2007.  

Analysts attribute the decline to several factors, ranging from educational programs designed to shape teenage attitudes towards early pregnancies to an uptick in teens' use of low-maintenance contraceptives, including intrauterine devices (IUDs) and implants, among older teens most likely to become pregnant, Mr. Albert tells the Monitor. 

But another driving factor may be that teenagers are having less sex than their parents did. "There has been a change in social norms that has happened in the past 20 years, and the idea of not having sex or delaying sex is now something that can be OK," he told The Washington Post.

More teens are waiting longer to have sex than they did in the recent past, according to a 2014 analysis from the CDC. 

A 2014 CDC analysis Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis found that more teens are waiting longer to have sex than they did in the recent past. Over two decades, in the 20-year period from 1988 through 2006–2010, the percentage of teenaged females who had been sexually active declined significantly, from 51 percent in 1988 to 43 percent in 2006-10.

In 2006-2008, 11 percent of never-married women ages 15-19 and 14 percent of never-married men that age had had sex, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit that researches reproductive heath and policies. In 1995, on the other hand, those numbers were 19 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

Why are teenagers having less sex? Albert says that teenagers are having a positive influence on their peers, in what he calls the "virtuous circle."

"We talk about teenagers and teen influence almost always negatively when, in fact, it can be and often is a force for good, and I think that one of the driving factors is that fewer teen mothers beget fewer teen mothers," he says.

Often-cited influences on teens' behavior and attitudes include the popular MTV shows "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom." A year after "16 and Pregnant" premiered on MTV, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a report attributing a 6 percent decline of teen pregnancies to the show's influence. A later study, however, refuted the figures, arguing that "Teen Mom" – a spinoff of "16 and Pregnant" – had a negative impact, as it glorified teenaged pregnancy.

But even with this notable progress, teen pregnancy remains high in the United States when compared to other countries. The US has 24 births per 1,000 women aged between 15-19, while the European Union has 11; Canada and Japan have 10 and 4, respectively, according to World Bank data.

The path forward, Albert says, is to continue education programs.

"The messages and the programs should become even more targeted and even more nuanced so that we reach young people where they are in relevant ways and ways that speak to them. I think one of the headlines is not to hang the 'mission accomplished banner.' There's still considerable work to be done," he says. 

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