Teen Pregnancy Prevention: Is It Working?

Teenage pregnancy is more than a moral failing or a juicy topic for a reality show. When a teenager girl becomes a mother, she’s more likely to drop out of high school, more likely to face financial challenges and more likely to need expensive support from government-ran social service programs. Over the years, many different teenage pregnancy prevention programs have been tried from sending expectant mothers to strict birthing centers out of the public eye to giving free contraceptives to girls.

Consequences of Teenage Pregnancy

Unfortunately, becoming pregnant as a teenager creates a cascading series of negative outcomes. Only twenty percent of teenage mothers receive financial support from the child’s father, which drives these mothers to welfare programs that often leave the mothers trapped in poverty. Additionally, teenage mothers are less likely to obtain a high school diploma or higher education, so these girls often cannot enjoy a meaningful career or a sense of financial progress. If these mothers do get married, they’re much more likely to divorce than their counterparts. The children themselves are more likely to be born prematurely, end up in foster care programs and receive poor grades in school.

Decline in Teen Births?

Mass Media Campaigns

In-person pregnancy interventions can be costly. Staff must be hired and trained, facilities must be rented and program materials must be created and distributed. One educator can only reach a limited number of teenagers, no matter how skilled he or she is. Some government agencies have used mass media campaigns, like radio ads or public service announcements, to promote safe sex practices. While few researchers have investigated the effectiveness of mass media campaigns at teen pregnancy prevention, previous studies have shown that widespread educational campaigns led to decreased smoking rates and lower rates of HIV/AIDS contraction.

Abstinence Only Programs

These programs, which avoid conversations about contraception to focus exclusively on promoting the avoidance of sex, have been implemented in many states. Unfortunately, researchers have found little evidence that abstinence-only programs can prevent teenage pregnancy. Classes that encourage abstinence as a moral or wise choice but also provide education on contraception seem to have a stronger impact on pregnancy prevention. In fact, many programs labeled as “abstinence only” do include some information on using contraception or advise students to talk with a physician about the issue.

Pregnancy Prevention Programs

Help for pregnant teens can often be hard to find. Researchers have tried many different ways to prevent teen pregnancy. Some of the most successful are intensive community programs that provide adult supervision, tutoring and career services, although it’s not clear if these programs result in teenagers actively avoiding risky sexual behaviors or simply limit opportunities to be alone with other teens. Other programs with a strong evidence basis include less-expansive educational programs that help teenagers build communication skills and the confidence to resist peer pressure.

Do These Efforts Save Money?

One approach to implementing policy changes is assessing whether the new policy will save the government – and therefore taxpayers – money. For most existing pregnancy prevention programs, the cost savings are clear. Because teen mothers are much more likely to need government assistance, including long-term benefits from Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps) and TANF (cash welfare), even an expensive prevention program can yield savings. One recent study suggests that government programs spend an average of $3,200 per year per pregnant teen. Even a mass media campaign would cost far less than that.

Do These Efforts Work?

Overall, the rates of teenage pregnancy are declining in the United States, although researchers aren’t sure why. Some credit national conversations about comprehensive sex ed versus abstinence only programs; even if teens don’t receive sexual education courses that include information on contraception and condoms, teenagers are more aware of these options. Other research has pointed to the impact of reality TV shows which broadcast the challenges of teenage pregnancy to a receptive audience. It may sound odd, but teenage pregnancy prevention is one area where reality TV might actually have had a positive impact on the world.

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