One study, two spins (with one attacking abstinence)

The CDC did a study about teen sexuality. Here’s how The Telegraph, a leading British news paper spun it:

American teenagers are having less sex, doing fewer drugs and drinking less alcohol than those who grew up in the 1990s, according to a new study.

Amid growing concern about teenage behaviour in Britain, the report by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that their American peers are heading in the other direction.

The study also found that, compared with the previous generation, US teenagers were more likely to use condoms during sex, wear a seat belt and avoid getting into a car with a driver who has been drinking.

About 48 per cent of high school students – who are roughly aged 14 to 18 – said they were no longer virgins in 2007, down from 54 per cent in 1991.

There was also a fall in the number who said they had had four or more sexual partners – down from 19 per cent to 15 per cent.

The change was more dramatic when it came to taking precautions. Even though AIDS awareness is arguably less of an issue now, 62 per cent of sexually active students said they had used a condom the last time they had sex. In 1991, only 46 per cent said they had.

Drinking, the bane of British youth, is another issue on which young Americans differ significantly.

Some 35 per cent of teenagers had at least one alcoholic drink in the month before they were surveyed in 2007, down from 42 per cent in 1991.

Marijuana use has fallen to a fifth of high school students from a peak of 27 per cent in 1999. Methamphetamine use has more than halved since 10 per cent of high school students admitted taking the drug seven years ago.

Violence in US high schools often involves guns rather than the knives that increasingly appear in British schools.

However, nearly half as many students admitted to carrying some kind of weapon – 17 per cent in 2007 compared with 33 per cent in 1991.


American teenagers are also acting more safely in cars. While 35 per cent said they rarely or never wore a seat belt in 1991, that proportion has fallen to just 12 now. They also revealed that they were less likely to get into a car with a driver who had been drinking – down from 36 per cent to 27 per cent.

That’s a stunningly positive report card, and something to be proud of. However, that’s not how the American media is viewing it. Here’s the WaPo take, syndicated in the SF Chron (meaning it’s getting wide play):

The nation’s campaign to get more teenagers to delay sex and use condoms is faltering, threatening to undermine the highly successful effort to reduce teen pregnancy and protect young people from sexually transmitted diseases, federal officials reported Wednesday.

New data from a large government survey shows that by every measure, the decadelong decline in sexual activity among high school students leveled off between 2001 and 2007 and the increase in condom use by teens flattened out in 2003.

Moreover, the survey found hints that teen sexual activity may have begun creeping up and that condom use among high school students might be edging down, though those trend lines have not yet reached a point where statisticians can be sure, officials said.


The new figures renewed the heated debate about sex education classes that focus on abstinence until marriage, which began receiving federal funding during the period covered by the latest survey and have come under increasing criticism that they are ineffective.

“Since we’ve started pushing abstinence, we have seen no change in the numbers on sexual activity,” said John Santelli, chairman of the Department of Population and Family Health at Columbia University. “The other piece of it is abstinence education spends a good amount of time bashing condoms. So it’s not surprising, if that’s the message young people are getting, that we’re seeing condom use start to decrease.”

The actual article is about five times as long as what I excerpted above, and focuses entirely on small changes in condom use, large opinion attacks on abstinence, and, unlike the British article, has almost no hard figures.