Texting Program Takes Aim at Teen Birth Rate
More babies are being born to single teenage mothers in Travis County, according to a report released this morning. With Texas public schools still restricted by state law in what they can teach about contraception and birth control, a new public health initiative aims to reach teenagers directly with a familiar technology: Text messages.
Text messaging is one of the most popular ways teenagers communicate. Two-thirds of teens exchange text messages every day, according to the Pew Research Center. Now, local public health officials are using that same platform to answer any questions teens may have about sex or reproductive health.
Teenagers can text a question and get a response within 24 hours.
“Encouraging teens to delay sex until they’re emotionally ready and physically ready for it is always a priority,” said Jeni Brazeal, a health educator with Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services. “But we also want to make sure they get the information they need to make healthy choices.”
Brazeal points to a 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in which half of Texas teenagers surveyed said they had had sex, higher than the national average.
“We need to be realistic about what’s going to work for them,” Brazeal said. “So if they ask questions about condoms, if they ask questions about birth control, we’re going to respond to those questions.”
One of the first text messages they received was from someone asking about which was the best condom to use. That’s the kind of information teenagers don’t get in Texas public schools, says David Wiley, a professor of health education at Texas State University.
“There’s virtually no information about contraception other than how much it fails, and so the whole idea about how to select condoms or different methods of birth control, it’s very rare that it’s discussed in Texas classrooms,” Wiley said.
School districts are not required to provide any health education in Texas. If they do, state law requires that abstinence be at the core of any sex-ed curriculum. But Texas has the third-highest teen birth rate in the country. And the state is number one in repeat teen birth rates.
Austin is not isolated from the phenomenon. A report out this morning by Kids Count showed the number of babies born to single teen mothers in Travis County continues to climb.
“Eight-point-five percent of all babies are born to single teens,” said Frances Deviney with Kids Count. “So we’ve actually seen that single teen births increase by almost like half a percentage point — not a ton, but it’s definitely not going in the direction that we want it to go.”
Austin is not the first city to launch such a program. Health officials got the idea from North Carolina. Similar sex-ed-by-text programs have been launched in Chicago, Washington DC and San Francisco.
Teenagers can opt in by texting ATXTeen to 66746. There’s also a service for parents to learn how to talk to their teens about sex. They can text ATXParent to 66746.