Context: The teenage birthrate rose sharply in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then declined in the 1990s. Attempts to explain these changes have failed to account for the changing environment in which adolescents live.
Methods: Data from the 1995 cycle of the National Survey of Family Growth are used to compare the experiences of three cohorts of teenage females in the 1980s and 1990s. A life-course framework is used to examine trends in characteristics of adolescents and adolescent mothers over time, and event-history analyses are conducted to determine which characteristics are associated with the risk of a teenage birth in each cohort. A comparison of the predicted probabilities from hazard analyses shows how changes in the context of adolescence across the cohorts help explain changes in the probability of a teenage birth over time.
Results: Factors associated with the increase in the teenage birthrate in the 1980s include negative changes in family environments (such as increases in family disruption) and an increase in the proportion of teenagers having sex at an early age. Factors associated with the recent decline in the teenage birthrate include positive changes in family environments (such as improvements in maternal education), formal sex education programs and discussions with parents about sex, stabilization in the proportion of teenagers having sex at an early age and improved contraceptive use at first sex. Sexually experienced teenagers in the mid- 1990s were younger, on average, at first sex than were their counterparts in the 1980s, and thus are at an increased risk of a teenage birth. Partner factors, including nonvoluntary first sexual experiences, were not associated with the risk of a adolescent birth in any cohort.
Conclusions: Programs to further reduce the teenage birthrate should take into account the role of family stability, parent-child communication, sex education programs and engagement in school, as well as attempt to reduce the proportion of adolescents having sex at an early age and to improve contraceptive use. The increasing risk levels among sexually experienced teenagers suggest that current programs may be reducing sexual activity among adolescents already at a low risk of a teenage birth, without addressing the needs of those at highest risk.