Adolescent pregnancy rates are at an all-time low, and a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that there have been significant changes to adolescent sexuality over the last 2 decades.
Although sexual activity among teenagers has changed little in the last few years, declining just 1% for females and 2% for males in the period from 2011 to 2015 in comparison to a similar study done from 2006 to 2010, a downward trend is more evident when viewed over a longer period.
The new report, conducted by the National Survey of Family Growth and administered by the CDC, tracked the behaviors of more than 4000 teenagers from 2011 to 2015. Researchers found that 42.4% of teenaged girls and 44.2% of teenaged boys report having sexual intercourse at least once in 2015 compared to 51.1% of teenaged girls and 60.4% of teenaged boys in 1988.
Contraceptive use has also increased significantly with 90% of adolescent girls now using contraception compared to just 80% in 1988. Teenage boys are on board, too, with 95% reporting contraceptive use in 2015 compared to 84% in 1988. In a more recent view, contraceptive use increased from 86% among adolescent girls during the 2006 to 2010 study period and from 93% among adolescent boys. The report also revealed that condoms, withdrawal, and birth control pills were the most frequently used forms of birth control among teenagers.
Alongside this data, researchers note that adolescent pregnancy rates and the number of births to adolescent mothers have been in a steady decline since the 1990s, with a historic low of 22.3 births per 1000 teenagers reported in 2015.
The report also reveals data on age at first sexual experience, with boys reported first encounters at age 15 or 16 years while girls waited longer. Probability of sexual activity was similar for both boys and girls by age 17 years.
Of those teenagers who had abstained from sexual activity, 35.3% of girls claimed it was against their religious or moral beliefs; 21.9% said they had not yet met the right partner; and 19.3% reported a fear of pregnancy. Similarly, 27.9% of boys reported religious or moral reasons for abstaining; 28.5% reported not yet finding the right partner; and 21.1% reported a fear of causing pregnancy.
The study also reviewed the circumstances in which teenagers have sex, with 74.1% of girls and 51.1% of boys having first intercourse with someone with whom they were “going steady.” Another 13% of girls and 27.3% of boys had their first experience with someone who was “just friends.”
Demographic differences were noted, as well, with 40.5% of non-Hispanic black adolescent boys more likely to have intercourse with someone who was “just friends” in comparison with 27.7% of Hispanic adolescent boys and 20.7% of non-Hispanic whites. There was no statistically significant difference by demographic among girls, but younger age at first intercourse among teenage girls was associated with a higher likelihood of being “just friends” with their first partner. Among boys, those aged 15 to 16 years at first intercourse were less likely than boys aged younger than 14 years at first intercourse to be “just friends” with their partner, revealing that boys whose first intercourse occurred earlier than age 14 years were more likely to have sex with someone they had just met.
Jeff Lancashire of the National Institute for Health Statistics says the decline in adolescent pregnancies since the 1990s has been considered a success by the CDC, underlining the importance of reducing teenage pregnancy and birth rates. Changes in sexual activity and contraceptive use have also contributed to that decline, he says.
A spokesperson for the CDC also notes that pediatricians have, and will continue to have, a tremendous impact on the sexual behaviors and impact of sexual activity in teenagers.
“Pediatricians can play an important role in teenage pregnancy prevention by counseling teenagers on the importance of delaying the initiation of sexual activity, helping sexually active teenagers get information about and use effective types of birth control and reminding teenagers to also use a condom every time to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, including human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome,” according to spokesperson for the CDC.