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Reporters Gone Wild

Pregnancy rates, STDs and abortions among young people are at record lows – so why does the media continue to insist that the teen 'hook up' is a new and alarming trend?
 
 
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To hear the media tell it, today's youth are emotion-fearing sex fiends – "hooking up" almost at random and terrified of "catching feelings" for each other and getting sucked into serious relationships.

Newsweek and NBC's Today jumped on this "story" recently, trumpeting the survey research of College of New Jersey Psychology Professor Elizabeth Paul and citing the high level of media interest in the teen "hook up" as evidence that it is a new, growing and alarming trend.

Newsweek noted that Paul's poll of college students "found that 78 percent of students had hooked up, that they usually did so after consuming alcohol and that the average student had accumulated 10.8 hookup partners during college."

But is today's hook-up really different from yesterday's one-night stand or drunken make-out session? NBC and Newsweek claim that the key difference is that the hook-up, rather than being an inferior substitute for romantic involvement, has become instead, a highly sought-after replacement for it. These kids don't want love, the media tell us, just meaningless sex or maybe "friends with benefits."

The actual trends in teen pregnancy and sexuality – and even the focus group session Paul conducted for Newsweek with college freshmen – however, seem to tell a very different story.

For one, neither NBC nor Newsweek produced numbers that told of reduced desire for romantic love or fewer actual long-term relationships – only statistics on the number of "hook-ups" kids reported. While claiming that "dating" and "boyfriends and girlfriends" were out of the picture, they presented no evidence to support this idea, just different language for varieties of sexual behavior that have long been with us.

The one study I could locate that explored the question of young adults participation in relationships, a survey published in 2001 of mostly female students at a university in the Southeast, found that 54% reported they were currently "emotionally involved" with a romantic partner, and they had been in this relationship for an average of a year. Hardly a sign that college students are avoiding commitment!

As for younger teens, the news is even better: the CDC's analysis of trends in youth sexual behavior between 1991 and 2001 found a 24% drop in the prevalence of "multiple sexual partners" amongst high schoolers during that time.

Newsweek itself even conceded that anti-relationship sentiments "weren't apparent" in the focus group attended by its reporter, but claimed that this was because the freshmen – who were all familiar with hook-ups from high school – hadn't yet absorbed college mores that prioritize sex over love!

In Today's interview with Paul, Ann Curry queried her about whether the alleged trend towards greater casual sex could mean more teen pregnancy and more STD's. Paul said that it could – but didn't mention that teen pregnancy rates have fallen in so-called era of the "hook up," reaching record lows. Teen pregnancy is down 28% from its peak in 1990, according to research compiled from National Center on Health Statistics data by the Alan Guttmacher Institute. Teen abortions are also down dramatically. Researchers at the 2004 National STD Prevention Conference noted a 74% drop in herpes infections amongst teens during the 1990's.

The Newsweek article was more careful than the Today report, admitting that, although research has begun, there is still little real data on whether modern teens and young adults are having more casual sex than their boomer or Xer parents.

But Curry nonetheless closed her interview by asking in a worried tone what those parents could do about the supposed trend. The real questions are: why are the media so keen for teens to be ever worse than their parents that they essentially make up stories about them? And why do reporters seem to believe that parents can – or even should – attempt to control the sex lives of their college-age offspring?

Studies show that condom use is far higher among adolescents and young adults than in the older generations. The younger generation has fewer unwanted pregnancies, less suicide, less crime, less drunk driving and less drug abuse. Maybe we should listen to them, instead of tarring them with our media-created fears and fantasies.

Maia Szalavitz is a senior fellow at the media watchdog group STATS.