The number of sexually active teenagers in the country hasn’t risen in the past eight years, and those having sex are more likely to use multiple forms of protection, according to a recent report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the number of boys who said they wouldn’t mind being a father if they were to get a girl pregnant has risen considerably since 2002, reflecting a possible shift in young men’s attitudes over the stigma of raising a child out-of-wedlock.
The Centers’ National Survey of Family Growth showed that 64 percent of today’s teenage males thought it was “acceptable” for young, single people to have children, up 14 percentage points when compared to similar data collected in 2002.
“This shift reflects changing attitudes toward out-of-wedlock births across the whole population, not just teenagers,” says Joanne Cox, MD, medical director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Young Parents Program. “In the US, 41 percent of all births were to unwed parents in 2008, compared to 28 percent in 1990. A lot of teens are also very likely to have grown up for a major amount of time in single parent households, either due to divorce or because their own parents never married, which can influence their thinking on the subject.”
The study noted that the number of teenagers having sex has remained constant over the past eight years, but the number of sexually active teenagers using of birth control— in most cases, the condom and the pill— has increased since 2002. Teenage women are also using a wider variety of contraceptives, and in many cases, teenagers were using a combination of two birth control methods, which Cox says are important factors in lowering the teenage birth rate.
“There’s been considerable advertising of newer contraceptive methods, such as Ortho Evra and newer oral contraceptive pills, in magazines and other media in the past few years, so I think teens are much more aware that there are choices,” Cox says. “However, teens’ access to confidential health care and a contraceptive prescription is varied depending on where they live. In general, teens living in large cities have much better access to these things.”
So if more teens are practicing safe sex, why has there been an increase in ambivalence towards unplanned pregnancy? Cox says it’s difficult to say for sure, but many societal factors are likely at play. “It could be that teens feel more confident that they can avoid pregnancy if they do have sex,” she says. “Also teen boys, depending on the social milieu, face increasing risk of failing in school or being exposed to violence in today’s culture. Having a child can be perceived as something to be proud of and a baby can provide hope for the future, which may account for some of the study’s findings.”
Regardless of the reasons for the attitude shift, the data found in the study suggests some parents need to do more to impart to their kids the importance of avoiding pregnancy–either through abstinence or safe sex practices. While the concept of teen sexuality can be difficult for many adults, Cox says the information derived from the National Survey of Family Growth could be the perfect opportunity for concerned parents to talk with their teenager about sexuality and the responsibility associated with it.
“Teens with strong future educational and career goals and positive peer friendships are much less likely to face an early pregnancy, so when the subject of sex comes up, it’s important to talk with your teen about their hopes and dreams for the future,” she says. “Within that context, parents can talk about the challenges of caring for a child while going to work or school. The vast majority of teens who are in a long-term relationships do become sexually active, so it’s important to discuss openly the whys and why nots of a sexual relationship with them, as well as the importance of responsible planning.”