black girl

On the face of it, a campaign inviting teenagers to identify their goals is a good idea. Adolescence is a time for cultivating ideals and learning to make the sacrifices necessary to pursue them. But when the City of Baltimore launched its Know What U Want pregnancy prevention campaign last month it missed this target by a mile.

“This city will never become what it can until we help our children become what they can be,” reads the forward of a Strategic Plan to Reduce Teen Births in Baltimore City, released in 2010. And nearly everyone can agree, teen pregnancy carries a list of setbacks. Baltimore has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the United States, with one in six pregnancies occurring in teenage girls, so something needs to be done.

It is true that growing sexual awareness is an important part of a teenager’s life and that our sex-saturated culture encourages young people to experiment, often with unwanted and unfortunate results. But, is Baltimore’s latest effort to curb teen pregnancy properly directed to address the causes of teen births?

In a citywide contraception push aimed directly at teens –under-15s included — the Know What U Want campaign uses videos, Facebook, and an online birth control method finder to help teenagers “Choose what’s right for you”. It also explains to teens how to get this contraception for free and without their parents’ knowledge, which is legal according to Maryland State law. Yet, all the multi-media hoop-la in the world cannot sell birth control to girls who actually want a child.

According to official data, the city’s highest teen pregnancy rate is among Hispanic teen girls and among girls who have already been pregnant. Additionally, the Strategic Plan notes that, “[p]overty is both a risk factor for and a consequence of teen births.”

Sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas found in their research on teen mothers among the poor that teenage girls have children to fill a void in their lives. “I wanted a child because it was mine. It was [for] love,” one teen mother told them. Further, motherhood gives teen girls a sense of purpose, something all adolescents are searching for. “[W]hen I don’t have enough energy to get out of bed in the morning…I know I have to,” another seventeen-year old mother explained. “When I turn over and look at him, it’s like I’m trying to give him a better life, so I gotta get up and I gotta do.”

By the way, Edin and Kefalas found contraception was widely available in these poor communities, and clinics with free or cheap resources were so well known that a phone book wasn’t even necessary to locate them.

Parents, pressures

And how smart is it to cut parents out of the picture? The confidential approach for obtaining birth control that the Know What U Want campaign pushes doesn’t seem to match what teens themselves would like.

Polling data from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen And Unplanned Pregnancy (whose graphics and data for the “birth control method finder” are used in Know What U Want — though the National Campaign tells me they did not advise regarding implementation), indicates that teens would like more parental involvement in their sex lives, not less. In this year’s With One Voice survey, 38 per cent of teens say parents most influence their decisions about sex — a percentage higher than for any other influence listed. Further, 87 per cent of teens agreed “it would be easier for teens to delay sexual activity and avoid teen pregnancy if they were able to have more open, honest conversations about these topics with their parents.”

Some will say that not all parents are equipped or able to handle these types of conversations with their teens. If that’s the case, would not an initiative to educate parents and foster such parent to teen dialogue be a more appropriate response, especially given it’s an expressed want of teenagers?

The Baltimore plan notes that teens cited several pressures to engage in sex, and ultimately find themselves pregnant. Permissive parents or having a mother who was a teen parent was one of these pressures. This suggests all the more reason for sex education initiatives to include parents— both to educate parents about the risks and to allow the teens to learn valuable lessons from their parents’ pasts.

Another pressure to engage in sex, according to Baltimore teens, was “having too much down time”. And one of their suggestions is this: “If everyone was doing something constructive that would be better…You know, where you and your friends get together and do something that is going to benefit the community? So it keeps you busy and so you don’t think about sex.”

This is an idea that has been shown to delay sex among teenagers, according to a review of sex education and abstinence programs conducted by Douglas Kirby for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “One study found that service learning delayed the initiation of sex among middle school students,” he writes, “and three studies that evaluated programs in multiple locations found that service learning reduced pregnancy rates during the academic year in which the teens were involved.”

Keeping marriage in view

Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake touts the Know What U Want campaign as one that will help teens “achieve their personal goals” by avoiding pregnancy and keeping on track to being productive city residents. Yet, it’s not only having a baby that can interfere with your life goals; so can drifting into uncommitted sexual relationships from a young age.

Monitoring the Future is an ongoing survey of young Americans conducted by the University of Michigan. In a 2006 report, 91 per cent of high school students surveyed responded that having a good marriage was either “important” or “extremely important” to them. And yet the National Survey of Family Growth (a nationally representative survey of women conducted by the American Center of Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) shows that early or frequent non-marital sexual activity has negative consequences later in life.

“When compared with women who began sexual activity in their early 20s, girls who initiated sexual activity at ages 13 or 14 were less than half as likely to be in stable marriages in their 30s,” a Heritage Foundation review of NSFG data explains. Further, more than half of those women who began sexual activity in their 20s report being “very happy” in life, compared to the third of women who began sexual activity at ages 13 or 14 and report that they are currently “very happy”. Who is talking to teens about this?

So, all this naturally brings one to wonder: Is the Know What U Want campaign actually helping teens get what they want in life, both short-term and long-term? Data indicates otherwise, and initiatives for teens ought to pay more attention to it. Young people deserve the best guidance for their life goals.

Meg McDonnell is a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow living in Washington DC. She’ll soon be joining the Chiaroscuro Foundation as their Director of Communications. 

Meg T. McDonnell is Editor in Chief of Verily Magazine.