The story of the UK’s teenage pregnancy rate is one that involves a complete turnaround. Two decades ago, this country had been touted by medical professionals as having the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in western Europe. According to the Guardian, today, that figure has halved, and now there are drops in conception rates for all age groups under 25, with only 14.5 out of 1000 births to teens. Arguments as to why such a drastic change has occurred come thick and fast, some attributing it to contraception becoming more readily available, some to attitudes towards contraception changing and some also to the changing ways in which teens socialise today. It’s probably somewhere between the three.
the recent change in the UK’s practice of teenage pregnancy can’t just be chalked down to more readily-available contraception.
It’s true that greater attention on contraception by the NHS has improved our access and exposure to it. 1.34 million people used contraception between 2012, and 2013 with 89 per cent of these being women. Methods of both male and female-aimed contraception have become streamlined and more varied, offering patients options tailored to suit their own preferences. There are even talks of a male oral contraceptive being developed. In 2016, most forms of contraception are just a GUM clinic away, and so it’s more practical to be using them than not.
The fact remains, however, that people have been using these methods for a long period of time, and yet we’ve only seen the huge change to our teen pregnancy rates really recently in comparison. We all know the pill’s been around since the Sexual Revolution itself, and the most basic incarnation of the condom has been in existence since the 1700s, but even methods which seem relatively new, such as the implant, have been in development since the 1970s. The IUD can even be traced back to the ancient Greeks. So the recent change in the UK’s practice of teenage pregnancy can’t just be chalked down to more readily-available contraception. Such a trend is equally influenced by the changing place of sex education at this moment in time, as well as changing attitudes towards teen pregnancies in general.
As the government continues to introduce better sex and relationship education, perceptions of teen pregnancy change, but the Guardian quotes Lisa Fontanelle, a peer mentor for the sexual health charity Brook, as showing that progress in cutting down conception rates is hindered by the stigma of good sex education. She says “people still think that if you give young people sex and relationship education, they’re going to go crazy,” when evidently this is not the case. Mobilising the educational forces of schools and parents has been key in educating teenagers on not only the mechanics of pregnancy itself, but also on how to relate to each other, and continues to be so.
Educational programmes aimed at reducing conception rates have revealed a startling reality of a youth who want more information about sex, relationships and pregnancy, but feel that they have limited resources for doing so. The Guardian reports that teenagers needed to be educated on issues of consent, based on a survey conducted by Fontanelle, and that they also felt too embarrassed to ask for condoms. So simply solved by better education, schemes provided by Brook, and Clear (a Cornwall-based sexual health charity) as well as the improved work done by schools show that conception rates aren’t linked to socio-economic inequality insomuch as they are cultural stigma, and that’s something that we can work to change.
Luckily these stigmas seem to be changing already, evident in the halving of our teen pregnancy rates that has already occurred, and in attitudes towards teenage pregnancy as authorities attempt to slash conception rates in teens even further. An article in The Telegraph attributes the decrease to the influence of social media on teens. A powerful study shows under-18 conception rates to undergo a huge drop after 2008, the year Facebook went global. The Telegraph argues that it’s less likely for young people to get pregnant in our social media age because they’re just not around each other as much. If we’re going to go by their perception of teenagers, they’re all too busy socialising on screens to even want to have sex.
The Guardian also reports that attitudes towards teenage pregnancy have changed because female role models have changed. While the early 2000s saw many a young female role model become pregnant (we all remember Jamie Lynn Spears, right?), today, it would seem that it’s “considered totally uncool.” Ultimately, the way we socialise today has shaped the attitudes of those most acclimatised to this mode of socialising. Social media has left the thought of getting pregnant as a teenager not one to be desired, if we were to believe The Telegraph, because our teens think it sounds too difficult, but also because it exposes them to a wealth of information and opinions.
Social media has left the thought of getting pregnant as a teenager not one to be desired. . . .
It’s becoming clearer and clearer that the UK’s current state concerning teenage pregnancy rates has largely been achieved with major improvements in sex education, and that’s the way to continue to change perceptions of teenage pregnancy. Social media could be an incredible tool of education and influence, particularly as one of the most invasive ways a teenager can interact with their role models. As contraceptive methods become more elegant, and educational platforms refine their message so as to target these teens, it would probably be worth looking at the social climate they are currently in to determine further actions to be taken.