Sexting & the plummeting teen pregnancy rate

by Anne Collier

Don’t believe anything you hear about sexting causing an increase in teen pregnancy. There is no way it can be true. How can I say that? Because teen pregnancy in the US has plummeted since 2007.

“For five years now, America’s teen birth rate has plummeted at an unprecedented rate, falling faster and faster. Between 2007 and 2013, the number of babies born to teens annually fell by 38.4%,” writes Sarah Kliff in, citing research by Demographic Intelligence. But that research firm isn’t by any means the finding’s only source. The federal government published it last June (2013 figures are the latest available), and the teen pregnancy decline made it into President Obama’s State of the Union address last week.

Teen abortions down too

“This drop occurred in tandem with steep declines in the abortion rate,” so abortions aren’t the explanation, Kliff points out. She looks at every possible theory you could think of for how this decline across all 50 states came about to show how stymied public health officials are in looking for an overriding explanation. Please see Kliff’s article for all the theories she surfaced and why they don’t cut it – yet, at least.

One of them was “the internet theory,” which is based on the fact that the Internet has become teens’ top workaround to the unending politics of sexual-health vs. abstinence ed and other hurdles to getting solid information. “The internet has become a dominant force in how teenagers learn about sex,” reports. In a 2010 study, 89% of 13-to-24-year-olds (50% female) surveyed said they got their information about birth control, menstruation, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases online (no telling how good the information was). As “the Internet theory” goes, having more information about the risks of pregnancy, childbearing and being a teen mother is a deterrent to becoming pregnant.

Many teen social problems have declined

We don’t know if that or any of the other current theories Kliff discusses is true. We just know that this teen social problem datapoint is way down. And it’s one of many that are down. Back in 2010, David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, detailed academic research showing declines in more than a dozen youth social problem indicators – from school violence to sexual abuse to suicide – since the early ’90s, when the Web went viral.

For 10 years, the Internet safety discussion had been suggesting that the Internet increased youth risk, especially sexual abuse (remember the predator panic of the last decade?). But Dr. Finkelhor showed that sexual abuse of minors was down 58% (even more than teen pregnancy) between 1992, right before the Web took off, and 2008, the latest federal data available in 2010. He said of course we can’t say the Web has caused that or any of the social problem declines he cited, but we can say unequivocally that its arrival on the planet has not caused an increase in any of the social problems.

Sexting safer than safe sex?

Now we can say this unequivocally about sexting: it’s simply not causing an increase in teen pregnancy. In fact, we could add one more theory to the collection: that teens are using sexting as a “safe” substitute for sex (“safe” in the sense of not getting pregnant). In his 2010 talk, Finkelhor offered a similar new hypothesis about the Internet and youth social problems in general: that the Net and connected media are a risk reducer rather than a risk amplifier. “The movement in all the indicators suggests that this hypothesis deserves consideration,” the professor said.

So why am I telling you all this? Not just to ease your fears (because I don’t believe parental fears support the parent-child communication needed actually to make kids safer) but also to reduce the misinformation that suggests sexting is “normal” among teens. As Prof. Justin Patchin points out in a blog post that cites all the latest data on teen sexting, “Chances are, your teen has NOT sexted.”

Teens getting smarter

And even those teens who have “sexted” – whatever the numbers, whether the CCRC’s 2.5% of people aged 10-17 or the 28% of students in five Houston-area public high schools – are getting smarter about it, Patchin writes. “I do believe that they are increasingly listening and learning. More and more teens I communicate with understand the risks, and for those few who choose to engage in sexting, it is a somewhat calculated decision based on the (probably accurate) belief that the risks to them are less for sexting than for engaging in sex.”

Why is it important to be accurate about what’s “normal” or normative in our children? Besides the fact that it’s respectful to tell them the truth, appealing to their intelligence encourages them to act on it. Another reason is what the social norms research tells us. Patchin says it this way in his blog post:

“It does a disservice to teens to tell them that [teen sexting is normal behavior]. The proliferation of these misperceptions – created and perpetuated by the social group, popular media, and culture – can normalize the behaviors and even attract more participants, eventually leading to the behavior taking on a life of its own.” He cites research published by the American Psychological Association.

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