What will it take for the phenomenal decline in teenage pregnancy to permeate public perceptions? Despite the more than 50% fall in the rate in the last decade, people still massively overestimate the prevalence of teenage pregnancy – with one recent poll finding the British public believes one in five teenage girls gave birth in the last year. The true figure was 1.36% in 2016.
But it is what has driven this monumental decline that most interests us at bpas, as an organisation which has long supported younger women who face an unplanned pregnancy as they make the decision whether to continue or end that pregnancy.
In a report we publish today, Social media, SRE and Sensible Drinking: Understanding the dramatic decline in teenage pregnancy, we set out to explore some of the factors behind that decline, talking to teenagers themselves about how they live their lives – and the extent to which lifestyle changes – from lower alcohol consumption to time spent online – have impacted upon teenage pregnancy rates.
There can be no doubt that access to better contraceptive services and good sex and relationships education, major planks of the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, have played a key role in the decline – indeed our research shows that those young people who rated their SRE as good were more likely to have delayed sexual activity, or had fewer sexual partners. This certainly gives impetus to the government’s proposals for mandatory SRE from 2019.
But there are also lessons for us within our research, which strongly suggests that while we may worry about social media encouraging certain sexual behaviours, the picture is much more complex than we perhaps imagine, and indeed the amount of time spent on social media as opposed to face-to-face interaction is itself a factor in the fall in teenage pregnancy.
We also need to understand issues from the perspectives of teenagers themselves.
Take sexting for example – widely held to be negative and problematic. Without a doubt, it can be – and 40% of those we surveyed felt it could damage young people’s wellbeing or relationships. However 44% also felt it could be part of a healthy sex life – and interestingly, some saw it a substitute and not just a precursor to sex itself. As such it is of course, unlikely to result in a pregnancy.
“It’s a good way of interacting with your partner without having sex,” said one young woman from our focus group.
“I think sexting doesn’t lead to sex as often as you’d think. People see it as something different, more of a gift than a mutual experience,” added a young man.
The decline in teenage pregnancy also takes place against the backdrop of a significant decrease in teenage drinking, with data from 2017 showing young people (16-24) were less likely to report having had an alcoholic drink during the previous week than any other age group.
A quarter of those we spoke to did not drink at all, and among those who did, this was typically at relatively low levels. They tended to drink in their own home or those of their friends, the product no doubt of concerted efforts to stop young people getting served in pubs, bars, off licenses and corner shops.
Heavy drinking was seen by our respondents as a risky behaviour which could place one in harm’s way – and indeed there has long been held to be a relationship between alcohol consumption and unprotected sexual encounters.
Overall what emerges from our report is a generation of young people focused on the future, often negative about the adult world they are entering and anxious about their own mental health - but confident that with hard work they can enjoy a good quality of life. Teenage pregnancy is seen as thwarting that.
The challenge that confronts us is making sure that younger women who do get pregnant at a young age and decide to continue that pregnancy do not experience stigma, and get the care and support they need, while celebrating the fact that so many young women today can make, and are making, different choices about their lives.
Clare Murphy is director of external affairs at BPAS