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Is Florida's declining teen birth rate a trend or a blip?

ST. PETERSBURG — The birth rate for 15- to 17-year-olds has fallen 19 percent, a decline in Florida that surprises public health officials and teenagers alike.

Florida logged the second-highest drop in the nation behind Arizona, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For every 1,000 teenagers here, there were five fewer babies born in 2009 than in 2007. Eighteen and 19-year-olds had 20 fewer babies — a 15 percent dip.

It's good news because statistics show that young moms and their babies face tough futures and cost society about $9.1 billion a year.

But what does it mean? Is it a trend? Or is it a blip?

• • •

The highest all-time teen birth rate in the United States was recorded in 1957 — when 96 babies were born for every 1,000 teens ages 15 to 19. That was before the pill, before legalized abortion. Since the 1970s, with the exception of a brief increase in the early 1990s, the teen birth rate dropped a little every year. Meanwhile, the teen abortion rate also steadily declined since its peak in the mid-'80s.

Then beginning in 2005, a tiny rise in teen births. Noticeable here in Florida, but unexplainable.

Was it the glamorization of sex in the media? Fewer teens using contraceptives? Federally funded abstinence-only sex education?

No one knew for sure.

Now comes a shift in the opposite direction, bringing the rate to the lowest level ever recorded in the United States. In 2009, 39 babies were born for every 1,000 teens ages 15 to 19. And younger teens, 15 to 17, were responsible for the largest percentage declines.

"It's a really big shock," said Kim Walsh-Childers, a journalism professor at the University of Florida who has studied how media affect teen sexual behavior.

Theories abound. The dragging economy. TV shows like MTV's Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant that lay bare the realities of having and raising a baby. More use of the Internet. More education about sexually transmitted diseases. More Florida teens using contraceptives.

"It's unclear," said Dr. Ghasi Phillips, senior maternal child health epidemiologist for the Florida Department of Health.

Most experts aren't willing to speculate.

Eric Buhi is an assistant professor at the University of South Florida who studies sexual health among young people. "I think we need more time," he said, "to look at if it's just a slight blip on the radar or if it's becoming a trend."

•• •

Most of what high school senior Kelly Price knows about human sexuality, she learned from friends. In fact, she can't even remember hearing the word "condom" in her health class at Durant High School in Hillsborough County.

But over in Pinellas County, Michael Newcomer, a junior at Tarpon Springs High School, is taking a sex education class that will teach him that safe sex is about abstinence. But safer sex involves condoms.

The differences reflect the reality of sex education across Florida. The information kids get about family planning depends a lot on where they go to school.

State law requires Florida schools to teach "abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the expected standard for all school-age students while teaching the benefits of monogamous heterosexual marriage."

But individual school districts can choose to offer information about how to have safe sex, which is why sex education is like a patchwork quilt in Florida.

In Hillsborough County, students are taught to abstain, but teachers will respond to questions about contraceptives. Pinellas schools offer a more comprehensive approach.

Buhi, from USF, says schools in counties to the north are more likely to focus on abstinence-only until marriage. Those to the south are more likely to tell kids about contraceptives. There are lots of variations.

In the past five years, six counties, including St. Lucie and Palm Beach, have "flipped" from abstinence-only to more comprehensive sex education programs. Buhi and a colleague are working on a research grant to explore why these changes are taking place.

The state also recently received three federal grants totaling about $9 million for programs that teach abstinence, comprehensive sex education and youth development.

"There has been a huge influx of money for this," Buhi said, "so it will be very interesting to see what happens."

• • •

Price, 18, said she was in the girls' bathroom washing her hands the other day when one girl told another she was pregnant.

Then the pregnant girl said, "Yeah, we've been trying."

"It seems like a lot more people are pregnant this year at my school," Price said. "I see it everywhere."

Newcomer, 17, said that though Tarpon Springs High doesn't have a lot of pregnant girls walking around, a lot of his friends are having sex, in many cases unprotected. It comes out when they freak out over the implications.

"There's been a lot of pregnancy scares and they had to take pregnancy tests," he said.

Newcomer said he gets a barrage of messages about safe sex, and it has had an impact. And when he has watched shows like Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant, he has thought about his future. He has realized that getting a girl pregnant would limit his options and he might not be able to go to college.

"I mean, it's a scary thought."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

Across Tampa Bay

Births per 1,000 teens ages 15 to 19

County 2008 2009 Decline
Hernando County 39.3 38.2 3 percent
Hillsborough County 50.1 47.9 4 percent
Pasco County 43 40 7 percent
Pinellas County 41.6 40.2 3 percent

Is Florida's declining teen birth rate a trend or a blip? 02/27/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 3:38pm]
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