WASHINGTON, May 30 -- Sex education and other programs that tell teenagers how to avoid pregnancy and AIDS do not encourage them to experiment and in some cases discourage it, a review of some 250 studies found.
The review, sponsored by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, identified a handful of programs that have succeeded in reducing teen pregnancy, including a handful that talk straight to teens about sex and a couple that focus on community service, giving teens constructive alternatives.
The review found that service learning programs, including voluntary service by teens in their communities and organized time for discussing and writing about volunteer experiences, can reduce teen pregnancy during program participation.
The review concluded that among the most effective programs for reducing teen pregnancy were the Teen Outreach Program, a nationwide youth development program, and Reach for Health, a health education and service learning program. The review suggested several possible reasons for service learning programs' success in reducing teen pregnancy rates, including participants' relationships with program leaders, their newfound independence, and their awareness of their ability to help others in their community.
The teen pregnancy review also noted that supervised after-school activities in general help teens avoid pregnancy by providing teens with less opportunity to engage in unprotected sex. Studies have shown that female teenagers involved in athletics are less likely than their non-athlete peers to be sexually active and to become pregnant.
As for sex-education programs, there remains no evidence about whether "abstinence-only" programs, a favorite of conservatives, are effective, the review said, even as the Bush administration proposes an increase in federal funding for them. A national evaluation of a $250 million abstinence program created by the 1996 welfare law is now under way, but results are not available.
Backers of these programs believe that talking about the benefits of birth control while encouraging abstinence sends a mixed message, but the report released Wednesday disagrees.
"The overwhelming weight of evidence shows that sex education that discusses contraception does not increase sexual activity," concludes the report, "Emerging Answers," written by researcher Douglas Kirby, a senior researcher at ETR Associates in Scotts Valley, Calif.
Four years ago, Kirby conducted a similar review of studies about teen pregnancy prevention and concluded that almost none of the programs that had been evaluated made a difference. This time, he reports, the findings are more optimistic.
Teen pregnancy, abortion, and birth rates have been falling since 1991, and birth rates are now at their lowest level recorded, with about 50 out of every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 giving birth in 1999, a 20% drop since 1991.
Experts point out that teen sexual activity has dropped as use of condoms increased--both largely due to fear of AIDS. Still, communities often struggle when trying to create programs to reduce their rates.
All the effective sex education programs employed what's sometimes called "abstinence-plus." They delivered a "clear message" that abstaining from sex is the safest choice for teens, but those who are sexually active should protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
The report, which examined only programs that had been scientifically evaluated, also concluded: