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More family time and ‘sexting’ may explain sharp fall in teen pregnancy rates

Rates in England and Wales have dropped by 55% over past decade, to lowest ever level

Caroline White

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

A greater focus on family time and “sexting” as an alternative to intercourse, are some of the lifestyle factors that may help to explain the sharp fall in teen pregnancy rates, suggests a new report* from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) published today.

Teen pregnancy rates in England and Wales have fallen by 60% since 1998, and by 55% since 2007. In 2016, the latest year for which data are available, the under-18 conception rate was 18.9 conceptions per thousand women aged 15-17, compared to 47.1 in 1969.

Scotland and Northern Ireland have also experienced significant declines in teenage conception rates and /or the numbers of births to under-18s.

The report, which looks at the contributory factors behind the figures suggests that it may partly be down to the fact that this generation appears family-oriented and more likely to value time with their family rather than their friends, so curbing opportunities for sexual relationships.

The trend for social, romantic and sexual relationships to be increasingly conducted online, with “sexting” seen as an alternative as well as a precursor to intercourse, may also help to explain the sharp decline.

Young people who socialised more face-to-face with their friends or partner were more likely to be sexually active, indicating that these low levels of face-to-face interaction may be linked to the decreasing rate of teenage pregnancies.

Only a third (34%) of the 16-18-year-olds surveyed for the report said they had had sex, and they tend to overestimate the proportion in their peer group who have‎.

Those who rate their sex and relationships (SRE) education as good seem likely to delay sexual activity‎, which gives added weight to government plans to introduce mandatory SRE from September 2019, says the report

The legacy of the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy has also meant greater access to more reliable contraceptive options, including “fit and forget” methods like the implant and IUD, says the report.

While often negative about the political and economic environment, teens feel confident that with hard work and commitment at school they will enjoy a good quality of life‎ and that pregnancy at a young age will thwart that.

Getting good grades or succeeding in their chosen career was the top priority for the young people surveyed, with 82% of respondents stating this was of high importance, compared to 68% who prioritised spending time with their friends.

Teens drink significantly less alcohol and see excessive alcohol consumption as a dangerous activity that puts them at risk‎ of unwanted incidents. A significant minority (24%) report that they never drink alcohol, and of those who do, most did so at relatively low levels, with more than one quarter (28%) consuming 1-2 units on a typical occasion, and half (50%) consuming 1-4 units.

Teenagers who consumed alcohol at lower levels were less likely to have engaged in sexual activity, suggesting changing drinking behaviours may have contributed to the decline in conceptions.

Teenage pregnancy is highly stigmatised by young people themselves and there are low expectations of support. Only a quarter of all young people surveyed (25%) expected a high level of support from the state if they became pregnant.

Katherine O’Brien, head of Policy Research at bpas, said: “We must ensure that in welcoming and examining the decline in unwanted teenage conceptions we do not stigmatise those who make the decision to have a baby at this stage in their lives.”

She added: "It’s clear that there is no silver bullet in preventing unplanned pregnancy at any age. While contraception and sex and relationships education can play a vital role, they must be delivered at a high quality in order to do so. Our research suggests that the government’s plan for mandatory RSE from September 2019 has the potential to further bring down teenage conception rates, but only if it is comprehensive and addresses the needs of young people today.

"We believe that young people themselves are making different choices about the way they live their lives. If we can maintain good access to contraceptive services for young people, there is every reason to hope this profound decline in teenage pregnancies is here to stay.”

Professor Lesley Regan, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, commented: “Sustained efforts on providing greater access to reliable contraception and sex and relationships education (SRE) both have a part to play with this reduction. However, we must never be complacent as strong regional variations in teenage pregnancy rates persist.

“It is encouraging to see that teenagers who evaluated their SRE as good are more likely to delay sexual activity. However, it is particularly disappointing that a significant proportion of young people are not receiving a high-quality of SRE."

She continued: “Cuts to local public health budgets are making it difficult for some young people to access contraceptive services, despite good use of highly-effective contraception playing a crucial role in reducing unplanned teenage pregnancy rates.

“We call on the government to ensure the needs of young people are addressed comprehensively as a matter of urgency through mandatory and high-quality SRE in schools and fully funded accessible contraceptive services.”

*Social media, SRE, and sensible drinking: Understanding the dramatic decline in teenage pregnancy. A report prepared by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, 2018.

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