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Why do we have problems with teenage pregnancy and rising STI rates in the UK? Witness a major contributor to the problem – our media.

March 26th, 2009

Dr Petra

Whenever I talk with journalists about sex education in the UK it’s guaranteed they’ll ask me why it is the UK is so bad at sex education and why the Netherlands is so much better.

Here’s why. The Netherlands does better than we do because they changed their approach to sex education to focus on relationships, feelings, emotions, confidence and respect. The country’s outlook does not promote teenage sexual activity. And the country’s media have generally backed efforts to provide sex education.

There are several reasons why the UK has problems with STIs and teen pregnancy. But one major cause of our difficulties is undoubtedly related to the British media doing the complete opposite of the Dutch system. Our media seems to deliberately and mischeviously resolved to undermine any sexual health/education initiative aimed at helping young people and their parents.

This week we sadly saw a classic example of this approach at work.

The first story, out on Wednesday, described a pilot study that’s going to take place in Oxford which will allow young people to text if they want the morning after pill (emergency contraception). As it’s a pilot study we don’t know if this scheme will work – that’s the point. Rather than setting up a scheme on a hunch it might work, a pilot lets you assess whether something might be effective so you only establish a new service if it looks likely to succeed.

Of course the media didn’t bother with such a trifling issue. Instead they focused on creating misleading and emotive headlines that suggested girls all over the UK were already using this service:
Girls of 11 text for morning after pill
Schoolgirls as young as 11 to ask for morning after pill by text
Morning-after pill by text for 11 year olds
Girls text for morning after pill

You might want to compare these stories with what went out on the newswire. While schoolgirls are referred to, there is no mention of 11 year olds being the focus of the emergency contraception service. Instead this release makes it clear girls aged between 11-13 who contact the service will be viewed as in need of child protection (so their wellbeing will be investigated). It explains the pilot is being run in response to rising teen pregnancy and termination rates. Yet the subsequent media coverage reports as though girls are already texting for EC and focus less on the need for the pilot.

The second news story appeared today. It outlined the Advertising Standards Association’s consultation to review their advertising strategies (which are extensive, but part of which applies to condoms and abortion). The press focused almost exclusively on the condoms/abortions aspect of this consultation. While the ASA want the public to tell them about a number of topics affected by advertising – including whether they would be happy for condoms to be advertised before the watershed, and whether advertising terminations on television is acceptable.

Again, this is a story about something that’s going to happen – a consultation exercise, and a wide ranging one at that. But the media responded as though the ASA were only bothered about condoms/abortion and were poised to inflict explicit adverts on us:
Abortion advice set to be advertised on TV

The decision to let abortion clinics advertise on TV is wrong on every level
As teenage pregnancies soar, the Government’s answer…abortion ads on television

Round-the-clock condom ads on British TV

Compare this to the ASA’s press release which does mention advertising condoms outside the watershed, but also stresses such adverts will be kept away from very young viewers. Abortion/termination is not mentioned. Nothing is said about ‘round the clock’ advertising.

In both stories devices are used to increase public anxiety around sex and relationships education and health. Phrases like ‘children as young as 11’ and ‘round the clock advertising’. These imply young children in particular are going to be targets of either easily available emergency contraception or wall-to-wall adverts for condoms and abortions. If you read coverage above it goes way beyond the original story ideas, introducing instead fears about parents being undermined, young people corrupted, and how such initiatives will inevitably increase promiscuity.

The headlines, stories and use of photographs (see links above) all work to paint a picture that is strangely contradictory. Coverage acknowledges we have a problem with teen pregnancies/STIs, yet the majority of stories then seek to dismiss initiatives that might tackle this issue.

The result? We don’t get to talk about the real issues here because of scaremongering. Undoubtedly teen pregnancy is a problem, so being able to text for the morning after pill could help (we don’t know, that’s what the pilot is for). Had there been less hysterical coverage we may have been able to ask why other initiatives weren’t seemingly considered – for example better signposting to existing sexual health services for young people or improvements in sex education to include information on respect, confidence and negotiation. All of which have been demonstrated to improve young people’s sexual health.

Worse still, where there’s a chance to direct people to participate in the ASA’s consultation exercise around advertising for condoms and abortions, the media spent more time with false debates where experts speculated on whether changes in advertising might improve our sexual health or harm us.

There is an ethical issue to be asked of journalism here where the public are misled about a consultation and made to think round the clock abortion adverts are about to be screened. How can we have a fair and open consultation after this? Surely the furore caused will lead to people stating changing advertising restrictions is wrong because the media told them so, rather than calmly thinking this through and being able to give a considered opinion (whatever that might be).

It seems the media simply don’t understand what pilots and consultations are. They pre-empt pilot schemes and report on them before they begin – which makes it very likely the results of such schemes could be skewed or even scuppered. It biases public consultations while creating needless fear among the public.

I’ll be responding to ASA and will post my contribution in a future blog. You are welcome to share your opinions with the ASA*, but please think this through independently of the media hype. The ASA has not decided to run abortion or condom adverts on all channels 24/7, they are waiting to hear what you think. And you should base your recommendations on the educational and health needs of young people, not the salacious misreporting of a media that seemingly doesn’t want us to ever reverse our current sexual health crisis.

*Closing date Friday 19 June 2009.

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