What really reduces teenage pregnancy; social media

British abortion provider, BPAS, have just produced a survey of teenagers dealing with the decline in teenage pregnancy rates. It turns out the big factor, despite all the hype, isn’t sex education at all, but social media and the fact that, as a result, teenagers spend a lot more time in the family home rather than meeting such other face to face. Our policy-makers should take note. The fact that the findings are from BPAS should doubly cause them to take note.

The UK has always had the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe but over the last twenty years those rates have experienced a rapid decline. In 1969, the conception rate per thousand women aged 15-17 was 47.1. It reached 18.9 in 2016. (p. 3)

Unfortunately, in the same period there was no similar drop in teenage pregnancies leading to abortions. In fact, the abortion ratio among teenagers has increased from 31.6% all of conceptions in 1995 in England and Wales to 51.4% in 2016. (p. 4)

So, fewer teenagers are now getting pregnant but, among those, the percentage who choose to abort their child has gone up.

The report acknowledges that there is no clear consensus as to what factors have driven the decline in teenage pregnancy rates. Social policies like sex education may play some role, but a growing and now dominant factor is the internet and its impact on socialisation.

Teenagers spend a significant amount of their time in the family house or with family members. An average of almost five hours a day is devoted to online activities for non-work or non-study purposes. Between 60% and 90% of social interaction with friends is conducted online, according to the study.

This profound shift in the way young people communicate and socialise with their peers is the major factor in the decline of teenage pregnancies. Young people who socialise more face to face with their friends are also more likely to be sexually active, while the growing time spent online is now reducing their opportunities for sexual interaction that could result in a pregnancy.

For the same reasons, alcohol and drugs consumption has fallen dramatically among young people. Compared to the previous generation, current teenagers present lower levels of alcohol consumption and of binge drink because they socialise mostly on the internet. As alcohol and drugs are linked to riskier sexual behaviour, the decline in their use has significantly contributed to reducing the pregnancy rate.

High-quality (but what is ‘high quality’?) sex and relationship education (SRE) might be another factor in the diminution of teenage pregnancy rate but the respondents to the BPAS survey had an overwhelmingly negative view of the SRE they had received. (p. 31)

Of significance is that the efficacy of contraception in reducing teenager pregnancies is generally overestimated. Indeed, the decline in teenage pregnancy has coincided with the closing of contraceptive services in parts of Britain.

As the report states: “Teen conception rates have declined despite the closure of contraceptive services across the country which may in turn be hampering young people’s ability to access contraceptive advice and support when needed. Therefore, while the uptake of long-acting methods of contraception will undoubtedly have had an impact, our research indicates that this alone cannot be responsible for the ongoing and significant decline in teenage pregnancy rates.” (p. 22). (In 2015/16, 30% of women aged 16-18 who attended contraceptive clinics reported using long-acting contraception methods.)

Commenting on this, Prof. David Paton has highlighted elsewhere that the biggest reductions in teenage pregnancy have happened after significant cuts to government programmes, questioning their effectiveness. (See here and here)

Our policy-makers have a naïve faith that school sex education will do wonders for our young people. The evidence for this is thin, to put it mildly.

It is somehow comforting that even the report by BPAS confirms our scepticism.