For decades, American parents and policy makers have fretted about the sexual proclivities of American teenagers. Now that studies suggest a slight upward trend in the average age of first sexual encounter, alarmists have found a way to twist this into cause for concern, too.
"Some observers are beginning to wonder whether an unambiguously good thing might have roots in less salubrious developments," The Atlantic's Kate Julian wrote in December. "Signs are gathering that the delay in teen sex may have been the first indication of a broader withdrawal from physical intimacy that extends well into adulthood."
Put more simply: Along with suffering from gnat-like attention spans and increasing levels of narcissism, internet-addicted young people have allegedly lost their desire—and perhaps ability—to physically connect.
But there's little good data to support these pessimistic theories. Adults should stop worrying about whether and when teens are having sex and look instead at the big (and positive!) teen sex picture.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), teen sex rates may be down, but among those who are having sex, use of condoms, emergency contraception pills, and other forms of birth control is up. Meanwhile, teen parenthood rates—a strong predictor of depressed wages, unstable relationships, and a host of other undesirable outcomes—have dropped steadily and significantly since the 1990s.
The birth rate for U.S. teenagers aged 15–19 "fell almost continuously since 1991, reaching historic lows for the nation every year since 2009," the CDC reported in 2016. In 2015, there were about 22.3 births per 1,000 girls in this age group. By 2017, the number had dipped to 18.8 per 1,000. The drop could be seen across racial, ethnic, and geographic lines.
Among younger girls, births were also at record lows. The birth rate for females aged 10–14 was at 0.2 per 1,000 females in 2016, down from 0.9 in 2000, according to the CDC. That's 2,253 births compared to 8,519.
The emergence of fewer teen moms helps tell another fertility story, this one also likely to be misinterpreted by those intent on finding doom in all developments. Conventional wisdom holds that women are waiting longer to become mothers. While that's true, it's not the whole story. The mean age at first birth did rise from 24.9 years old in 2000 to 26.3 years old in 2014. But this primarily stems from a decline in births at the youngest end of the spectrum rather than a massive increase in older first-time moms.
"The largest factor in the rise in mean age at first birth is the decline in the proportion of first births to mothers under age 20, down 42% from 2000 to 2014, or from approximately 1 in 4 births to 1 in 7," the CDC reported.
Abortion rates among teens—and indeed among all age groups of U.S. women—are also down. For 15- to 19-year-olds, the abortion rate rose to around 4 percent in the mid-1980s but has been dropping now for three decades. By 2013, it was at about 1 percent.
According to a study from the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, the decline in teen births can be attributed both to young people waiting longer to have sex—the bulk of the explanation for falling teen pregnancy in the '90s and early '00s—and to increased contraceptive use, which accounts for more of the post-2003 drop.
"Concerns about AIDS led to changes in perceptions about condoms and increases in condom use," Guttmacher notes. Its National Survey of Family Growth, conducted with Columbia University, found that "condom use at last sex among females aged 15–19 increased from 38% in 1995 to 52% in 2006–2010; among males, condom use at last sex increased steadily, from 64% in 1995 to 75% in 2006–2010."
The kids are having sex later in life and doing it more safely. Only in a culture of constant and irrational worry could this be seen as a bad thing.