Teens have more information than ever about how to not get pregnant — but it's still not coming from sex-ed class. Instead, teens are increasingly turning to the internet to access family planning info. And it seems to be working.
The Pew Research Center, citing a number of studies, reports the birth rate among teenagers in the United States is at an historic low — since 2007, it's fallen 42 percent across all racial and social demographics. And while the Pew numbers reflect live birth data, and don't include teens who became pregnant but who had an abortion, a rise in abortions doesn't seem to have played a role. The Guttmacher Institute reported that teen abortion rates are at their lowest point since abortion became legal, and they have remained constant since 2007.
Yet, formal access to comprehensive sex education appears to be dropping.
According to the CDC's National Family Growth survey, between 2006 and 2010, 70 percent of girls and 61 percent of boys aged 15 to 19 were taught about birth control methods in school. But between 2011 and 2013, that number actually dropped to 60 percent of girls and 55 percent of boys of the same age. In fact, some 43 percent of girls and 57 percent of boys got no information whatsoever about birth control before they'd had sex for the first time.
But somehow the message that teenagers engage in sex responsibly has gotten through. The Family Growth survey also found that the number of teenage girls reporting they've ever had sex has declined from 51 percent to 44. And of those who say they are having sex, the majority of them — 79 percent of girls and 84 percent of boys — say they used protection.
The Guttmacher Institute concluded that the major driver in the teen birth rate drop is contraceptive use — they found that the number of older teens who use long-term contraception tripled between 2007 and 2009. Use of the morning after pill has gone up as well. Some 22 percent of teenagers had used emergency contraception from 2011 to 2013 compared with only 8 percent in 2002, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
So where are teens getting their sex-ed info? According to the Nation Coalition for Sexual Health, 89 percent of teens turn to the internet for information about sex. And it's likely that the non-internet media teens are exposed to plays a role as well. In 2014, the Brookings report released a paper that posited that shows such as 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom were responsible for a reduced teen birth rate of 5.7 percent.
As teens increasingly hop online to answer basic sexual health questions, many organizations are shifting their focus to the digital space. Planned Parenthood offers a teen-focused site which provides answers about common sex-related myths, and guides teens on figuring out which birth control is right for them. TeenSource features a hookup of the week where readers can dissect a sexual encounter that went well (or not) and discuss surrounding issues of consent, safety and sexual health, as well as find nearby health clinics. New apps like Juicebox, a sexual health information app aimed at teens, provide professionals to answer anonymous sex-ed questions. The app's most-asked questions surrounded STIs and sexual pleasure.
Juicebox developer Brianna Rader attributes the app's success to the dearth of formal sex education. "Our country has been in a sex-ed crisis for a while and is still in that," she told Vocativ.
According to Guttmacher, California is one of only 24 states, plus Washington, D.C., that mandate sex education. And only 13 states require "that the instruction be medically accurate." Instead, students are often exposed to so-called abstinence-only programs, which often highlight the failure rates of contraceptives rather than encouraging their use.
Perhaps no example better illustrates our education system's discomfort around sexual health than the recent story of substitute teacher Alison Wint, who alleges she was fired for using the word "vagina" in a class of Battle Creek, Michigan eighth graders. She was discussing interpretations of the works of painter Georgia O'Keeffe — particularly her paintings of flowers. Wint said she was told that referring to female reproductive organs without prior approval was grounds for dismissal, and was asked to leave, the Washington Post reported.
That's not the first time it's happened — in 2013, Idaho high school biology teacher Tim McDaniel said vagina to a class of 10th graders in a voluntary sex education course, and was investigated as a result. The complaint was eventually dropped, but the teacher stopped teaching reproductive education as a result.
It's hard to imagine how you can effectively teach sex-ed if you're banned from talking about vaginas. And while some high school-based sex-ed is reliable, other research suggests it's better if it's the peer-to-peer kind, like this high school "sex squad" in Los Angeles that uses music and jokes to make sex-ed interesting, funny, and engaging.
Still, as long as we live in a world where parents and communities don't want eighth or tenth graders to hear the word vagina, we can keep our fingers crossed that the internet is doing the job parents and educators don't seem able to agree on, and give teens the credit they deserve.
"While there are many alternate explanations of what might be behind the sharp recent declines in the teen pregnancy and birth rates, one thing is clear," Dr. Laura Lindberg, a principal research scientist with Guttmacher, told Vocativ. "The share of teens having sex has not changed recently. This means the declines in teen pregnancy reflect changes in the behaviors of sexually active teens."
Imagine how much better they could do if they had educators, and not only the internet, helping them, too.