September 15th, 2010
04:21 PM ET

Study shows teens receive sex ed

Most American teens are well-educated about sex, with 97 percent saying they had received some formal sex education before the age of 18.

The data are part of a new report from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), part of the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics.

"We wanted to update the facts on how many teens are getting formal instruction on sex education and how frequently," says report author Joyce Abma, Ph.D, in a podcast released in conjunction with the report. Abma is a demographer with the National Center for Health Statistics.

At first glance, the report seems to show a significant increase from 2002, when only 85 percent of teen girls and nearly 83 percent of teen boys had received any sex education. But Laura Lindberg, Senior Research Associate at the Guttmacher Institute, says the survey changed its methodology, adding questions about HIV/AIDS that had not been asked before.

"We need to be very cautious when interpreting that because [the education] could be one hour of a discussion of a news article about AIDS in Africa," says Lindberg.

"When you look at the key topics of STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and birth control, they are much too low. What skills have [these teens] learned? Do they know how to prevent AIDS?  If you don't include those two pieces of information, it's not adequate education."

In terms of birth control use, the CDC report says 38 percent of male teens and 47 percent of female teens received their first instruction about birth control in high school.

Parental involvement is key to when and how many teens find out about sex, birth control, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The CDC says four out of five girls under the age of 18 have talked with their parents about sex, birth control methods, where to get contraceptives, STD transmission and protection, and how to use a condom. That compares to two of every three males under 18.  The statistics even out by the age of 18 when roughly the same percentage of male and female teens have talked with their parents.

Younger female teenagers seem to be particularly well-educated about some topics compared to their male counterparts. They're more likely to talk to their parents about sex, including how to say no to sex when they're not comfortable, according to the analysis.  Not surprisingly, younger male teens were more likely to talk about how to use a condom with their parents.

"The glass half full here is that parents and schools are willing and able to talk about sex," says Lindberg. "The glass half empty is that they may not be talking about the right topics, with the right depth, and accurate information."

That begs the question, how many teens are actually having sex? A related report released in June found 42 percent of girls and 43 percent of boys under the age of eighteen have had sex at least once. The data do not show whether these teens had any formal sex ed before they lost their virginity.

The  bottom line for Lindberg: "The most important thing is for parents to have honest conversations with their teens about their personal family values. And that can be a different conversation in very house."

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