In yesterday’s post, I explained some of the factors that might explain the dramatic fall in teenage pregnancy rates experienced in England since 2008. Although there were several plausible candidates (demographic change, better educational outcomes and a shift to long acting reversible contraception), none seem sufficient to explain why rates suddenly started to fall in 2008 after so many years of little change.
Few commentators have paid much attention to the fact that in the past few years, not only have teenage pregnancies gone down, but so has virtually every other indicator of teenage risky behaviour. For some years, the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) has carried out an annual survey in schools of risky behaviour amongst 11 to 15 year olds and the results are fascinating. On almost every measure, teenage smoking, drug and alcohol use has decreased over the past 5-6 years. There has been a similarly dramatic drop in youth offender rates over the same period and which social policy experts have struggled to explain.
Why is all this relevant to teenage conceptions? Well, drug and alcohol use are known to be high risk factors both for early sexual activity and early pregnancy. Almost certainly, lower drug and alcohol use has played a role in lower teenage pregnancies.
The obvious follow-up question is what has caused the decrease in crime, alcohol, drugs and smoking? There isn’t much evidence that school-based education has played a role. For example, the HSCIC survey finds no association between alcohol and drug use amongst young people and the amount of time schools spend teaching about these issues. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise: as I discussed in my previous post, school-based sex education similarly seems to have little effect on teenage pregnancy. Does that mean schools have no role in providing young people with information about drugs, alcohol and sex? Clearly not, but we should not expect programmes in schools to affect behaviour in any significant way.
Could there have been another factor which has caused a more general shift in teenage behaviour and which might help to explain the drop in teenage pregnancy too? Some of the trends that I discussed in my previous post are likely to be relevant here too. For example, the higher rate of young people staying on in education has probably contributed to the general decrease in risky behaviour, but again this is not entirely satisfactory.
There is another, and very significant, social trend which has developed at the same time as the decrease in teenage pregnancy, drinking and drug-taking. This is the dramatic appearance of social networking in the lives of teenagers. Facebook use amongst teenagers was just getting off the ground in a significant way in 2007. It is hard to deny that Facebook and other social networking applications have changed the way teenagers interact with each other in fundamental ways.
The increase in social networking may well have brought with it dangers such as online bullying, easier access to online porn and so on. However, is it too much of a stretch to suggest that, for at least some teenagers, the amount of time spent interacting virtually with friends on a smartphone has led to fewer physical opportunities to engage in drinking, drugs and underage sex? Perhaps there are other, alternative, explanations as to why all measures of risk-taking behaviour amongst teenagers have decreased so much in recent years significantly. If so, it’s up to social science researchers to try to find out.