Page last updated at 11:25 GMT, Thursday, 26 March 2009

Can ads cut teen pregnancy rates?

By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News

teen
The UK has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe

When it comes to teenage pregnancy, the UK stands out.

Unfortunately, it is for the wrong reasons - the country has the highest rate in Europe.

More than 8,000 girls under 16 get pregnant each year. Once the under 18s are included, well over 40,000 do.

This is despite ministers making it a key priority and promising to halve the rate by 2010.

But for the past few years it has been clear that the goal is going to be missed with rates only dropping by a tenth since 1998.

It is against this backdrop that regulators are considering relaxing the rules on the advertising of pregnancy and abortion services on radio and TV.

It could mean condom adverts appearing before the 2100 watershed.

We really have to tackle the underlying cause of the high teenage pregnancy rates. It is to do with self-esteem and self-respect
Hilary Pannack, of Straight Talking

But what impact will this have on the behaviour of young people?

Rebecca Findlay, of the fpa, formerly the Family Planning Association, believes more frequent advertising could act as a prompt for discussions within the family about contraception and safe sex.

"Our advice to parents is to avoid the big 'sit down' conversations. Seeing these adverts on TV could be the perfect way to get people talking about the issues. It could make it more normal."

Simon Blake, chief executive of Brook, the sexual health charity for young people, agrees it could provide a context for having "meaningful conversations".

"We are still not having mature discussions about sex, it is treated as a subject for titillation."

He believes if this were to happen it could have a dramatic effect on teenage pregnancies.

Over half of the under 18s that get pregnant end up having an abortion, meaning the number of new teenage mothers has actually fallen by nearly a quarter since the late 1990s.

Mr Blake says: "That tells me that there are lots of teenage girls out there that do not want to get pregnant.

"If we can help give young people the confidence to approach sex in the right way then we could see real progress.

"It is not going to be a magic bullet, but advertising can be a very powerful tool."

Concern

Hilary Pannack, who heads up Straight Talking, a sex education charity, agrees relaxing the advertising rules could raise awareness.

But she is concerned people will just switch off when the adverts are aired.

"We really have to tackle the underlying cause of the high teenage pregnancy rates. It is to do with self-esteem and self-respect.

"Young girls too often feel pressurised to have sex without protection.

"To change this we need better education in schools and better social mobility.

"Too many young people do not feel they have real opportunities in life that would encourage them to make sure they do not get pregnant."

She also said it was important the advertising was carefully designed so as not to promote abortion services as an alternative to contraception.

And she added there was a risk that the advertising could be undermined by the highly sexualised nature of television.

"It is good to have the advertising, but what message does it send if it is followed by Big Brother where we are all waiting for the contestants to have sex?"



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