Claiming that social media has caused the fall in teen pregnancy neglects the impact of public policy on women's health
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed yesterday that in 2014 teen pregnancy rates fell to their lowest level since records began, at 22.9 conceptions per thousand women aged 15 to 17.
In response, the Times and Telegraph have published stories suggesting we have Facebook and Snapchat to thank for the collapse in the numbers. The logic is simple: teenagers are engaging online rather than have ‘irl’ sex.
The Telegraph quotes David Paton, an economics professor at the University of Nottingham, who has previously pointed out that the nosedive in pregnancy rates began around 2006, immediately Facebook went global.
‘It does potentially fit in terms of timing,’ he says, but adds that ‘nobody really knows why we’ve got this sudden change around about 2007 to 2008.’
In other words, correlation is not causation. The dates might fit, but if that’s the standard for evidence we could also attribute the decline in teen pregnancy to the sub-prime mortgage crisis or the changing Premiership fortunes of Manchester City.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service has also been co-opted as an expert witness by the Times, based on a measured and qualified statement from its spokesperson:
“There are many reasons behind the fall in teenage pregnancy, and access to better contraception and sex education are of course among them, but we also need to recognise the many ways in which young people’s lives have changed.”
While it’s hardly surprising that journalists have jumped on the scientifically dubious explanation that makes a fun headline, doing so is politically dangerous.
Attributing falling pregnancy rates to an organic, non-political factor like social media distracts from the fact that public policy has enormous impacts on women’s reproductive health, and essentially lets politicians off the hook.
Even if teen pregnancy rates are falling, Britain still lags behind much of Europe with regards to reproductive health, and the current government is responsible for a series of highly regressive policy decisions.
The Conservatives have refused to back widespread calls for compulsory sex education, as well as significantly cutting English public health budgets.
As Genevieve Edwards, director of policy at Marie Stopes UK, points out, the ONS figures also show an increase in the number of conceptions leading to abortion. This suggests that women do not have adequate access to reliable contraception and that increased investment is needed to train GPs to confidently prescribe a wide range of contraceptive methods.
Might changes in teen behaviour play a part in falling pregnancy rates? Yes, they might. But choosing to present possibility as fact for the sake of a good headline distracts from the fact that lots more needs to be done, and that current government policy is taking us backwards.
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