American teenagers are awash in temptation, particularly the kind that involves pleasures of the flesh. They are exposed to racier images on television than ever before. Popular music celebrates carnal passion with unceasing gusto. And the Internet offers an endless array of graphic sexual fare.
From watching "Glee" or "Gossip Girl," you get the idea that high school is just one hookup after another. This salacious environment is a lot for impressionable youngsters to deal with, but our kids are dealing with it surprisingly well.
So says the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reports that when it comes to having babies, adolescents are not only doing better than they used to be, they’re doing better than they’ve ever done since 1946. The birth rate among teenagers fell by 8 percent from 2010 to 2011.
It wasn’t a fluke. The previous year, it fell by 9 percent. These represent just the continuation of a long and very impressive decline over the past two decades. Since 1991, the number of babies born to women ages 15 to 19 has fallen by 49 percent, despite an expanding population of teenagers.
Nor is the phenomenon peculiar to any one group or region. Among non-Hispanic blacks, the rate has plunged by 60 percent since 1991. Among Latinos, it’s 53 percent. Teen births have been falling across the country. If the rate had stayed where it was two decades ago, there would have been 3.6 million more births since then than there actually were.
There are some collateral benefits from the improvement. Premature births have fallen among all women, and so has the number of low-birth weight babies - both of which make for healthier infants.
What accounts for the dramatic progress? A combination of less sex and more contraception has played a big part. Since 1991, the proportion of high school students who have ever had sexual intercourse has declined from 82 percent to 60 percent - a drop of more than a quarter. Adolescents are also less likely to have had several partners.
The ones having sex have gotten more careful about the consequences. Among those who have sex, the use of condoms has risen by one-third. Lately, other types of birth control also appear to have gained in popularity as well. Some 14 percent of sexually experienced teen girls have used emergency (plan B) contraceptives. But abortion has gotten less common.
The picture we get is not the raunchy abandon so often depicted in popular culture. It’s one of growing awareness of the downside of sex, more willingness to postpone it, and taking measures to prevent it from causing pregnancy.
Those steps are what parents, teachers and public health professionals have been urging on adolescents for decades now. Surprise: They’ve been listening.
Distributed by MCT Information Services