Explaining the rapid decline in the teen pregnancy rate

There was a 50% decline in the ‘teen pregnancy’ rate in England and Wales between the 6 years 2010 to 2016.

Teenage pregnancy stats England.png

The rate declined from around 40 conceptions per 1000 15-19 year olds to less than 20 per 1000. Similar trends in the 15-19 conception rate occurred in both Northern Ireland and Scotland.

This means that the UK’s teen pregnancy rate has gone from being one of the highest in Western Europe, to much closer to the average. This trend has been heralded as one of the most significant public health success stories of our times.

These statistics were highlighted this week in a report published by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). The charity commissioned YouGov to collect a combination of qualitative and quantitative data, using the the following mixed-methods approach:

  1. A diary task in which participants documented their day-to-day lives over the course of 4 days (including one weekend.)
  2. Four online focus groups with 16-18 year olds drawing on the diary notes (inNovember 2016)
  3. The results of the focus groups were then used to inform a demographically weighted quantitative survey of 1,004 16-18 year olds which was conducted online in February 2017.

In this this blog post I selectively summarise some of the findings of this research. I focuses on the reasons why the teenage conception rate has fallen so dramatically in the last six years.

Why is the teen pregnancy rate declining?

The conclusion to  the report highlights the importance of three factors:

  1. importance of good quality sex education
  2. The use of contraception
  3. The rise of what the authors call ‘generation sensible’: today’s teenagers are basically more risk averse and responsible than you may think.

To my mind this final analysis is typical of a charity looking to influence social policy. The first two factors are things the government can control, and the link between them and the decline in teen pregnancy is fairly obvious.

Of far more interest is the significance of social factors which the government cannot control: the social factors which lie behind the rise of so-called ‘generation sensible’…

The rise of ‘generation sensible’ and the decline of teen-pregnancy

Just over half of teenagers feel negative about the state of politics in the UK. The report finds that teenagers are worried about their future prospects. They feel that the current older generation in charge isn’t creating the kind of society in which they can prosper. In this context, teens are more likely to knuckle down and study to improve their future prospects.

Teenage views politics.png

Many of today’s teens have a dim view of those who engage in risky drug-related and sexual behaviors, and such behaviours have declined.

Teenagers are not that promiscuous: only a third of teenagers admitted to having had sex, and half of those had only had sex with one person. Some of the responses in the focus groups were that they were too busy for relationships.

Sexting seems to be replacing body-body sex: nearly 80% believe sexting can be a legitimate part of a relationship. Half of teenagers admitted to having received a sext, with a third admitting to having sent one.

Almost half of 16-18 year olds don’t drink at all, or drink only once a month or less. Only 13% drink more than twice a week. Moreover, many teenagers have a negative view of binge drinking and don’t like the risks associated with being ‘out of control’. Today’s teenagers have even more negative attitudes towards drugs.

Teenage drinking.png

Sociological relevance

This study provides a really interesting insight into how risk society and the perception of lack of opportunities in the future have changed the world-views of today’s youth.

It also seems to suggest support for the view that today’s youth have become ‘responsibilised’. They are taking responsibility for their own futures by not engaging in risky behaviour which might reduce their life chances. Foucault would be nodding his head furiously I imagine.

Despite the ‘policy’ feel of the report, I also think it’s an important reminder that social policies are quite limited in their ability to steer human behaviour. It seems that the other social factors are just as important here.

What’s of further interest is just how rapidly this change has occurred.

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