New report finds lifestyle factors, including focus on time with family and low-levels of alcohol consumption, may have influenced the sharp decline in teenage pregnancy rates.
Teenage pregnancy rates have fallen by 55% in the last decade to their lowest ever level. A new report by bpas, Social media, SRE and Sensible Drinking: Understanding the dramatic decline in teenage pregnancy, explores the factors which may have contributed to this marked drop.
- This generation appears family-oriented and are more likely to place high value on time with their family than their friends, which may impact upon opportunities for sexual relationships
- Social, romantic and sexual relationships are increasingly experienced online, and sexting is seen as an alternative as well as a precursor to intercourse
- Only one third of the 16-18 year olds surveyed (34%) said they had had sex, and overestimate the proportion in their peer group who have. Those who evaluate their sex and relationships (SRE) education as good appear likely to delay sexual activity, which gives added impetus to the government plans to introduce mandatory SRE from September 2019
- Thanks to the legacy of the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, they have greater access to more reliable contraceptive options, including fit and forget methods like the implant and IUD, although contraceptive use can be inconsistent
- While often negative about the political and economic environment, teenagers feel confident that with hard work and commitment at school they personally will enjoy a good quality of life and that pregnancy at a young age will thwart that
- Getting good grades or succeeding in their chosen career was the top priority for the young people surveyed, with 82% of respondents stating this was of high importance, compared to 68% who felt that spending time with their friends was of high importance.
- They drink significantly less alcohol and see excessive alcohol consumption as a dangerous activity that puts them at risk of unwanted incidents. A significant minority (24%) report that they never drink alcohol, and of those who did drink, most did so at relatively low levels, with more than one quarter (28%) consuming 1-2 units on a typical occasion, and half (50%) consuming 1-4 units. Teenagers who consumed alcohol at lower levels were less likely to have engaged in sexual activity, suggesting changing drinking behaviours may have contributed to the decline in conceptions.
- Teenage pregnancy is highly stigmatised by young people themselves and there are low expectations of support. Only a quarter of all young people surveyed (25%) expected a high level of support from the state if they became pregnant.
Teenage conception rates in England and Wales have fallen by 60% since 1998, and by 55% since 2007. In 2016, the latest year for which data is available, the under-18 conception rate was 18.9 conceptions per thousand women aged 15-17, compared to 47.1 in 1969. Scotland and Northern Ireland have also experienced significant declines in teenage conception rates and / or the numbers of births to under-18s.
Qualitative and quantitative research conducted by YouGov and bpas (four online focus groups and a demographically weighted survey of 1,004 16-18 year olds) examined key trends in teenage lifestyles and outlook, as well as young people’s experience of SRE and use of contraception, which may be contributing to the record low conception rate among this age group.
Data from the report suggests that teenagers’ patterns of social interaction – often with their families, often online, combined with lower levels of alcohol intake - may be impacting on their likelihood of engaging in sexual activity, and therefore the conception rate.
The full report can be found here. Findings and methodology are summarised below.
Young people who took part in the research spent significant time either in the family home or with family members. Time spent with their family was for some the highlight of their days, and there were focus group respondents who spent their weekends exclusively with family members. Young people were more likely to view time with their family as of high importance than time with their friends (33% vs 27%).
“I love spending time with my family in the evenings, especially when I’ve been at college all day” Female, ABC1
“I only spent time with family today…[I’m] very close to them.” Male, C2DE
Interactions with friends and partners often took place online. More than two-thirds (70%) of the young people we surveyed said that they speak to their friends online 4 times a week or more, while less than a quarter (24%) speak to their friends face to face with this regularity outside of study/work. Around one in five (22%) said they see their friends outside of study/work once-a-month or less, and around one in five (21%) of those in relationships see their partner less than once a week.Significantly, the research found that young people who socialised more face-to-face with their friends or partner were more likely to be sexually active, indicating that these low levels of face-to-face interaction may be linked to the decreasing rate of teenage pregnancies.
“I spend most of my time with my friends online as physically meeting them outside of school is very hard to schedule for me.” Male, ACB1
Respondents were also asked about the role of new technologies, such as sexting, in relationships, with 44% agreeing that sexting can be part of a healthy sex life, compared to 40% who felt it could be damaging to young people’s wellbeing or relationships. It was clear that some believed sexting could act as both an alternative and a precursor to sex.
“It’s a good way of interacting with your partner without having sex.” Female, ABC1
“I think sexting doesn’t lead to sex as often as you’d think. People see it as something different, more of a gift than a mutual experience.” Male, C2DE
Outlook and aspiration
Alongside the patterns of social interaction, the report suggests the outlook and aspirations of this generation may also be contributing to the decline in teenage conceptions.
Despite concerns about current climate, this is a generation with a clear belief that through hard-work they could succeed in life, and the majority (51%) felt positive about their own likely standard of living. The majority of survey respondents were happy about their education / career prospects for the future (66%).
Getting good grades or succeeding in their chosen career was the top priority for the young people surveyed, with 82% of respondents stating this was of high importance, compared to 68% who felt that spending time with their friends was of high importance. Teenage pregnancy was viewed as disruptive to their academic and career plans, and survey respondents felt overwhelmingly negative about becoming a parent at their age because of the impact it could have on their life prospects, and on their ability to care for a child. It was also felt teenage pregnancy was highly stigmatised.
“I want to be able to afford to give my child the life they deserve.” Female, C2DE
“I wouldn’t want my child to be brought up in a situation where I can’t support their needs fully.” Male, C2DE
“I feel like pregnancy would isolate me from other people my age who are having fun and cause conflict within my family.” Female, ABC1
“It does seem like you would be judged/helped less if you became pregnant now.” Female, C2DE
As well as prioritising hard work over time with friends, the research also provides evidence that this generation are rejecting other stereotypical teen behaviours which have previously been linked to teenage sexual activity, in particular excessive or “binge” drinking.
A significant minority (24%) report that they never drink alcohol, and of those who did drink, most did so at relatively low levels, with more than one quarter (28%) consuming 1-2 units on a typical occasion, and half (50%) consuming 1-4 units. Overall among those who drank, 69% drank 6 units or less on a typical occasion. The report suggests young people view excessive drinking as undesirable and potentially harmful to both their wellbeing and enjoyment of social occasions, rather than a pre-requisite for a good time. A number of focus groups respondents commented on the need to be “careful” or “responsible” when drinking. While alcohol does play a role in social occasions, low-level drinking also serves a second primary purpose- to help young people relax and escape the stresses of their day-to-day lives.
“I never used to drink but started when I turned 18. I waited until I knew I’d be mature enough to make such a decision, but I don’t drink very often, just at events or parties.” Female, ABC1
“Drinking does come with responsibility.” Male, ABC1
“Alcohol helps me to relax. I love having a hot bath, a glass of wine, and a book.” Female, C2DE
SRE and contraception
Data from the report suggests that good quality sex and relationships education (SRE) may have an impact on young people’s sexual activity. The Teenage Pregnancy Strategy which ran from 1999 until 2010 emphasised improved sex and relationships education and access to effective contraception. Those young people who rated their SRE as good were less likely to have had sex than those who rated it as poor (26% vs 42%) and were also less likely to have had sex with 2 or more partners (12% vs 22%), suggesting that the government’s proposals for mandatory SRE from September 2019 has the potential to further reduce teenage pregnancy rates – but only if delivered to a high, comprehensive standard. While most always or usually used contraception when having sex, it should be noted that a significant minority (14%) - of those surveyed said that they “rarely” or “never” did. However, we are unable to infer from the survey results how many episodes of unprotected sex this represented.
Commenting on the report, Katherine O’Brien, Head of Policy Research at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, bpas, said:
“Many teenage mothers provide a loving, caring home for their child, and every parent should be supported. We must ensure that in welcoming and examining the decline in unwanted teenage conceptions we do not stigmatise those who make the decision to have a baby at this stage in their lives.
"It’s clear that there is no silver bullet in preventing unplanned pregnancy at any age. While contraception and sex and relationships education can play a vital role, they must be delivered at a high quality in order to do so. Our research suggests that the government’s plan for mandatory RSE from September 2019 has the potential to further bring down teenage conception rates, but only if it is comprehensive and addresses the needs of young people today.
"Our research reveals that this is a generation who are focused on their education, aware of economic challenges but determined to succeed regardless, and many of whom enjoy time with their families as much as with partners and friends. They seem to place significant value on responsibility and maturity, particularly when it comes to alcohol consumption and sex.
"We believe that young people themselves are making different choices about the way they live their lives. If we can maintain good access to contraceptive services for young people, there is every reason to hope this profound decline in teenage pregnancies is here to stay.”
About the research:
BPAS commissioned YouGov to provide qualitative and quantitative research regarding teenage lifestyles and behaviours and the influence different factors may be having on teenage conception rates. YouGov conducted four online focus groups with 16-18 year olds, alongside a pre-task diary in which participants documented their day-to-day lives over the course of 4 days (including one weekend.) The results of the focus groups were then used to inform a demographically weighted quantitative survey of 1,004 16-18 year olds which was conducted online. The focus groups and survey questions were designed by BPAS and YouGov, and this work was very kindly funded by The Portman Group, the responsibility body for drinks producers in the UK.
bpas is a charity which sees more than 70,000 women a year and provides reproductive healthcare services including pregnancy counselling, abortion care, miscarriage management and contraception, at clinics across the UK. It supports and advocates for reproductive choice. More information can be found at