The Sexual Activity and Birth-Control Use of American Teenagers
In: Risky Behavior among Youths: An Economic Analysis
This paper evaluates the evidence regarding teens' sexual activity and birth control use with an emphasis on the contribution of economic analysis. Researchers in other disciplines often view teen sexual activity as spontaneous and irrational, so that teen pregnancies are often considered "mistakes." Economists' focus on the costs and benefits of alternative actions leads them to view sexual activity and contraceptive use as "decisions." After documenting recent trends, I review the research on these activities from both economists and other social scientists. I then present the results of two empirical exercises. The first estimates the relationship between a multitude of individual and family characteristics and the likelihood that a teen engages in sexual activity and uses contraception. The second examines whether changes in the costs of sexual activity and contraceptive use are related to changes in these behaviors. The results support the view that costs matter, implying that there is some underlying decision process. The analysis then proceeds to examine the cost of teen childbearing by reviewing evidence regarding the subsequent well-being of women who became mothers in their teens. The final section utilizes the results of this analysis to help evaluate possible policies designed to reduce the level of unprotected sexual activity by teens.
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