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Witnessing the Horrors of Young Motherhood Can Prevent Teen Pregnancy

Researchers previously thought that teens were more likely to become pregnant once their peers did. But a new study says they actually learn from their friends' mistakes.
Photo by Studio Firma via Stocksy

In the United States, teenage pregnancy rates remain stubbornly high. In 2014, according to the CDC, the US out-ranked all other developed countries with 249,581 births to women aged 15 to 19 years. To help combat this, researchers have been hard at work trying to get inside the unknowable minds of Snapchatting, sexting, clumsy teens. And they're getting close.

Unlike past research, which has indicated that teens with friends who become pregnant are more likely to become pregnant, a new study suggests that young girls with adolescent friends who have a child may be deterred from getting pregnant themselves.


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The novelty of this study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, was that researchers were able to create a random control: They looked at girls who had a friend who was pregnant and gave birth compared to girls who had a friend who was pregnant but miscarried. "In a lot of the previous literature that have found correlations between one teen's sexual behavior and their friends', it's hard to know if there's actually a peer influence or if it's because people choose friends who are like themselves," Dr. Kandice Kapinos, the lead researcher of the study, told Broadly over the phone. "We were able to create a natural experiment to get at a more causal relationship, as opposed to just identifying a correlation."

Dr. Kapinos analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health), which administered surveys about sexual health, among other things, to 90,000 American kids in grades 7 to 12 in 1994. Those kids are now in their 30s, and have been interviewed by Add Health four separate times over the years. Since the Add Health survey also asked students to list their friends, the study's researchers were able to use a sub-set of this data to look at how a friend's teen pregnancy impacted individuals in both the short-term and the long-term.

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What Kapinos and her team found was that women whose friends gave birth as teenagers were 5.1 percent less likely to become pregnant as a teen and 5.4 percent less likely to actually give birth. They were also 6.3 percent less likely to be married before age 20 and nearly 8 percent more likely to have completed a four-year college degree. "Those women who see their friend give birth had decreased sexual activity—they reported less sex per year," Kapinos added. "They also delay sex by about a year."

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Kapinos thinks that all this is because teens are seeing just how awful the 16 and Pregnant experience can be. "We presume that the teen who witnesses the realities of day-to-day parenting—as opposed to the teen who has a friend who miscarries and subsequently doesn't see her parent as a teen—[are deterred from getting pregnant]," she said. Indeed, the study supports previous research that found young girls who watched the MTV show were less likely to experience teen pregnancy.

The study results could be used to shape sex-ed programs at schools and reduce teen pregnancy, Kapinos says. "There have been studies on infant simulation programs—where they give kids a sack of flour or an egg, or even a fake doll—and the literature on that is not very strong," she said. "There's not a lot of evidence that those programs work. Carrying around an egg is very different from seeing your friend every week struggling to balance school and other activities with child rearing. You obviously can't suggest that students get a friend who is pregnant, but programs that try to more accurately depict those realities are promising."