Giving Kids Condoms Only Works If They Know How To Use Them

Photographed by Kate Anglestein.
A new study out of the University of Notre Dame shows that giving kids condoms without educating them in how to use them isn’t just unhelpful, it can be actively damaging. The study found that access to condoms in schools actually increased teen pregnancy rates by about 10%, thanks entirely to schools that were giving away contraception without teaching kids how to use them. “These effects are driven by communities where condoms are provided without mandated counseling,” the researchers wrote.

With perfect use, condoms are 98% effective at preventing pregnancy — but “perfect use” is pretty much a myth. The real rate is closer to 82%, which means that statistically, 18 women out of every 100 using condoms wrong will get pregnant. That’s bad news, particularly when combined with the fact that only 55-60% of teens have received formal instruction about birth control, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Of course, this is not cause to throw up our hands and say that making sure kids have access to contraception is useless. Rather, the takeaway is to make sure that teens, like adults, are getting enough accurate information to make informed decisions. (For those of us who want to brush up on our contraceptive education, Planned Parenthood has some great resources about how to effectively use all types of contraception, including male condoms.)

The researchers note that "programs with counseling may have seen no change or perhaps a decline in teen fertility," meaning that the results were exclusive to areas where ignorance is bliss.

The researchers also note that there are a number of factors that can’t be fully assessed in terms of narrowing the effects on more specific age groups, such as the shift from other forms of contraception to an emphasis on condoms or rates of “risky” behavior. The data being analyzed is from the 1990s, though the analysis itself is new, so researchers also warn against taking it as an indicator of any trends.

However, they point out that “the results above indicate that contextual factors are of first-order importance when providing condoms. A critically important result both for policy makers and for scholars.”

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