Tuesday, March 25, 2008

In Teen Relationships, Communication is Safest

An interesting new study has been released on the sexual habits of (heterosexual) teenagers. The results show that sexually active teens in trusting relationships are more likely to use contraception than those having more casual sex. The study involved 4,500 teens in grades 7 through 12.

An analysis of national data conducted by Child Trends, a research center that focuses on children and youth, found that sexually active teens who identify their relationships with a partner as romantic and who go out socially with that person are more likely to use contraceptives than similar teens in more casual relationships. This may be because they feel more comfortable talking about contraception with a partner they know and trust, said Jennifer Manlove, a scientist at Child Trends and one of the study's authors. Among girls, good communication and the quality of the relationship play a role in decision-making.
It's an educated guess to say that those in a trusting relationship are more likely to communicate about contraception. Research does indeed show that those couples who talk about contraception are more likely to use it.

Though the news is reassuring for parents whose teenage children are in committed relationships, there is cause for concern. Pregnancy is always a risk for teens having vaginal intercourse, but despite being less likely to use protection, teens having sex casually or with multiple partners are at a higher risk for STDs. And using contraception in one relationship does not necessarily determine whether or not a teen will use contraception in a future relationship:

The analysis, taken from information on more than 4,500 unmarried, sexually experienced young people, also found that girls were more likely to use contraception with boys their age than with older males. The teens were, on average, 16 years old when they first had sex. A fact sheet released by Child Trends contained some sobering news drawn from the study. For example, a teen's contraceptive use may change from partner to partner. Using birth control consistently in one relationship doesn't necessarily mean that a young person will do the same with another partner.

Use of contraception, in fact, is not as regular as health officials might hope. Four out of 10 sexually active students reported not using contraceptives at all or using them infrequently.

The news is certainly troubling, particularly in light of recent information showing that one in four teenage girls has an STD. But there is a bright side. In facing such a widespread STD problem, knowing what may lead teens to use or not use protection is absolutely vital to finding a solution.

One of the study's authors gives some good, practical advice:

Manlove said, it's not enough for parents to focus on whether their kids are having sex. They should engage their kids in conversations about what healthy relationships look like, pay attention to the power dynamics of any relationship and stress the importance of contraception.

Of course, having a single committed partner is important to STD prevention, and also to building trust in sexual relationships. But though ideal, it's not practical to assume that everyone will have only one partner, or one serious partner, at all times. Instead, the study's results support sending a slightly different but universal message: communication is sexual relationships is a must. We need to teach teens that if they trust a person enough for sex, they also need to trust that person enough to talk about contraception.

No comments: