Teens, Sex, and Pesky Birth Control Myths

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Roughly half of teens who became pregnant hadn’t used birth control, according to a CDC report. Why? Numerous explanations exist, but the fact that many teens believe in myths about birth control and sex is definitely one of them.

 

Teens, who experience many changes during the transition from childhood to adulthood, may be more likely to believe in myths or misinformation than adults.  Research tells us that the teen brain is not fully developed.  In fact, brain development and maturation aren’t fully realized until about age 25.  This concept helps to explain why the ability of teens to make sound decisions and exercise high degrees of reasoning in their decision-making is often compromised.

As an OB/GYN physician, I understand the challenges of educating sexually active teens about birth control while also confronting prevailing myths that can be dangerous. This article sheds light on five popular myths and offers straight facts that adults can use to educate their teens.

Myth #1:  You won’t get pregnant the first time you have sex.

Fact:  There’s no such thing as a pass for beginners. If a teen girl has unprotected sex near the time she ovulates (releases an egg from her ovary), she can easily become pregnant. It’s possible to become pregnant a few days before, during, and after ovulation. Effective birth control and condom use should always be used to protect against pregnancy and STDs (dual contraception).

Myth #2:  Pregnancy won’t occur if the male partner “pulls out” or withdraws prior to ejaculation or orgasm.

Fact:  Withdrawal is a common birth control method among teens, but is not highly effective. In fact, the failure rate of withdrawal is more than 25%, according to some reports. Pre-ejaculation fluid may contain sperm. And, withdrawal requires a certain amount of self-discipline, which is likely more difficult for teen males than adults.  While withdrawal is better than nothing, its use should be discouraged in favor of dual contraception (effective hormonal or non-hormonal birth control and a condom).

Myth #3:  A girl won’t get pregnant if she has sex during her period.

Fact:  It’s easy to understand why this myth prevails, and it’s true that it’s unlikely for a girl to become pregnant when she’s on her period. Usually ovulation occurs about two weeks prior to the start of a period. However, in some cases bleeding may occur in the absence of ovulation. If a girl has sex during this bleeding and ovulates soon afterward, she could potentially get pregnant since sperm can live in her body for several days. It’s never worth taking a chance that ovulation won’t occur during a bleeding episode.

Myth #4:  The hormones in birth control make you gain weight

Fact: Teens are very image-conscious and it can be difficult to persuade them to use birth control that they think causes weight gain.  Several studies have been done on birth control pills.  While some teens may experience a small increase in weight, most studies show that birth control pills do not cause weight gain when compared to women taking placebo pills (tablets with no medication in them). Nonetheless, concerns about the pill and weight gain are common from my teen patients and adults as well.

 

The most effective methods of birth control are the IUD (intra-uterine device) and the implant (small rod placed under the skin in the arm).  They are also known as LARCs (Long-Acting Reversible Contraceptives).  Weight gain is very unlikely in IUD users and reported to occur in only 6-12% of implant users.  These points are well worth stressing to teens.

Myth #5:  Birth control causes cancer

Fact:  It is important for teens to know that the birth control pill is actually associated with protection against ovarian, uterine and colorectal (large intestine and rectum) cancers. The progestin containing IUD is also associated with a decrease in uterine cancer and may even be prescribed as a risk reduction measure in very obese young females. Uterine cancer risk is also decreased in females who use the depo-provera shot.  Informing teens of these facts can ease their concerns and reluctance to use birth control because they believe the cancer myths.

This article is adapted from Before It’s Too Late, A Parent’s Guide to Teens, Sex, and Sanity by Sheila Overton, M.D., FACOG

 

 

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Teen Pregnancy: No Time For Complacency

pregnant absTeen pregnancy and birth rates in the U.S. have reached historic lows, so it might be tempting for parents, healthcare providers, community leaders and others to think, “problem solved!” and move on to another really important teen issue.  But here is the reality:  The most recent data, according to the Guttmacher Institute, still show approximately 625,000 teen pregnancies still occur annually in the U.S.  That’s roughly equal to the population of a city like Baltimore.  And, the U.S. has higher teen pregnancy rates than other comparable industrialized countries.

The term “teen pregnancy” doesn’t begin to convey the cascade of public health and social problems that occur when teen girls get pregnant and give birth.  Statistics from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy show that teen pregnancy is a significant cause educational and economic hardship.  Only about 38% of girls giving birth before age 18 obtain a high school diploma by age 22.  Sadly, just a fraction of teen moms will obtain a college degree by the age of 30.  This educational disadvantage is one of the reasons that teen pregnancy is a leading cause of poverty. Data from 2010 shows that roughly half of teen mothers, not staying with their parents, were living in poverty by the time their child turned three.  A lack of education and economic hardship, too often propel teen moms and their children to lives of unfulfilled potential.

In 1997, I co-founded and chaired a Teen Pregnancy and STD Prevention Program at my hospital in Los Angeles.  A key goal of this program and my continued work in this area is to educate parents and to facilitate their ability to guide their teens towards healthy, smart, and values-based decisions about sexual health.  After all, parents should be the primary sex educators of their children, but often they report feeling unprepared, or even clumsy, about this very important parenting task.  The following Pearls of Wisdom are excerpts from Before It’s Too Late:  What Parents Need to Know About Teen Pregnancy and STD Prevention:

  1. Be an empowered parent—education is the key.  Staying abreast of current information about teen pregnancy and prevention issues will help you feel more confident in talking to your teen.
  2. Keep talking—and please avoid that one time, awkward moment, called “The Talk”.  You’ll want to have many conversations with your child about the wide spectrum issues related to sexual health.  Some may be more formal, but teens prefer more impromptu, casual, and brief talks.
  3. Emphasize your values and morals—if you don’t, the vacuum will be filled with the highly sexualized information abundant in today’s media.
  4. Partner with health care providers—you don’t have to go it alone.  Choose a health care provider for your child who is tween/teen friendly, has an interest in promoting sexual health, and is really willing to listen.

Photo courtesy of J. K. Califf

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