Is teenage pregnancy contagious?

New research published this week by the University of Bristol, claims that within families, teen pregnancy tends to be contagious.

What an odd term to choose.

Contagious. Makes it sound like a nasty disease doesn’t it? Not, in my humble ‘I-was-a-teenage-mum-and-I-don’t-live-off-benefits’ opinion, a terribly positive start to the piece.

The study found that having an elder sister go through a teen pregnancy increases the chance of a teenage pregnancy in younger siblings – known as a ‘peer effect’. This peer effect is apparently a powerful force, doubling the likelihood of a younger sister becoming pregnant as a teenager, from one in five to two in five.

It takes me back to my school days, or my sister’s school days to be precise. My sister is four years younger than me and, I’m pleased to report, managed to resist the peer effect and hold off falling pregnant until in her mid twenties. No guilt for me there then.

There was a woman at our school who taught biology, and who had a particular dislike of me for some reason. Her bitterness was passed down to my sister, and became particularly apparent during a sex education lesson she was giving my sister’s class, when she was about 13 years old. (My sister, not the teacher. That would of course be highly inappropriate).

After the lesson, she took my sister to one side. I wasn’t there, but I can imagine her, arms folded across her chest, one eyebrow slightly raised, a fearsome look on her face, spitting out her words like daggers – “I hope you were paying more attention to that than your sister did.”


The point is though, that according to this new research, our biology teacher was right to be concerned. Sure, she probably didn’t go about it in the kindliest of ways, but still.

The irony is though, that whether or not she was paying attention in that lesson or generally, is likely to have had little effect on my sister’s chances of following in my slightly waddly, pregnant footsteps. According to the research, “greater education reduced the probability of a teen birth, but the influence of a sibling who had a teen birth outweighed the impact of higher education.”

Now this point confused me. Education is key right, but exactly how does completing a degree, which normally happens when you’re about 21, help protect you against becoming pregnant at 16?? Am I missing something? Isn’t that time travelling? How can there be evidence to show a causal effect of an event that happens after the thing it is supposed to be impacting? Isn’t it more likely to simply be a positive correlation, with girls who get pregnant young also then being less likely, due in part simply to logistics, to be able to go into higher education?

I’m confused. If someone can please explain this relationship to me I’d be very grateful.

It’s an interesting study, but I’m not convinced at how useful these findings are. OK, so you’re more likely to get pregnant if your sister does – it almost feels like common sense really. But what are the implications? How can we use these finding to shape policy, to make changes? I read through the research, looking for answers, but it seems the study is as inconclusive as this post.

It concludes simply by suggesting  that “policies aimed directly at decreasing teenage pregnancy may also be needed to reduce teen births”.

Goodness me, you don’t say?

Well there’s our answer then, the magical cure – want to reduce teen pregnancy? Easy. What you need are some policies aimed at reducing teen pregnancy…




  1. Beth
    12 August, 2011 / 4:00 pm

    How much of a research grant was used to come to this ground breaking conclusion? I’m assuming the research is based on government stats and not just a sample they created? I can only base my opinion on my own experience of being a teenage mum and there was no way my little sister was going to do the same. She saw how much harder everything was logistically for me and I would almost say it encouraged her to be more careful not to become a teenage mother.

    It’s so nice to hear of supportive teachers…what a witch. I find myself resorting back to teenage remarks like ‘she probably wasn’t getting any’. Who says having children makes you mature???

    • 15 August, 2011 / 2:11 pm

      It’s actually based on census data of about 42,000 Norwegian women born after the second world war. Of course.

  2. Camilla
    12 August, 2011 / 5:38 pm

    Good to know girls are still getting pregnant by themselves. What a ridiculous study!

    • 15 August, 2011 / 2:11 pm

      Well dur, we all know boys have nothing whatsoever to do with it…

  3. 13 August, 2011 / 6:59 pm

    Can you remember the ‘sex education’ that you did get? I ask because my friend had her first child at 15/16 and I have absolutely no doubt that she listened, understood that if she let him put that in there that she may fall pregnant, she wasn’t stupid, but it happened nonetheless.

    I dont think you can’t educate in a one size fits all manner, maybe they should approach it in
    more of a marketing strategy way – what is the target audience, what will appeal to them – tailor the message!

    To suggest that getting pregnant is contagious is beyond ridiculous, crazy, waste of money study.

    But I loved your post ;) x

    • 15 August, 2011 / 2:14 pm

      Well, I remember something in primary school where they took all the girls off secretly into the hall and gave us each a tampon, and it was all terribly exciting.

      And then I remember something in secondary school where a teacher put a condom on a penis shaped soap. Or that might have been a weird dream.

      It’s really no wonder I was pregnant at 16 is it?

  4. Nepe
    15 August, 2011 / 10:39 pm

    It’s actually a fascinating study and as a midwife it comes as NO surprise to me at all!!
    As for it’s uses well – it highlights those girls who may benefit from further education and it also shows us where we need to be looking to study further in order to come with robust ways in which to reduce the teenage pregnancy rate.
    The education part I took to mean that those girls who have either attended education and / or achieved a higher educational level are less likely to have a pregnacy as a teenager but this pattern was not seen if your sibling had a pregnancy as a teenager.
    Ofcourse girls don’t get pregnant on their own but with some figures suggesting that upto 25% of men are unknowningly bringing up children who are not biologically theirs it becomes tricky to rely on data.

    There is also robust statistical data from the UK that demonstrates that girls born to teenage mother are more likely to become teenage mothers themselves.

    Even with the best sex education in the world it will continue to happen that young girls will get pregnant and as teenage pregnancies include the girls who are 16-19 then some of those girls will be choosing to become pregnant. I have met plenty of level headed, married, self-sufficient parents to be who are under the age of 20 and yes their mums and sisters had their babies early too, as did the generations before them…

    There is a rich tapestry of life out there

  5. Fiona Firth
    18 August, 2011 / 4:47 pm

    Clearly it is pointing out that all teenage mums are thick as pig shit. How you didn’t pick up on this is beyond me ;) (kidding of course lol)

  6. 18 October, 2013 / 10:15 pm

    Hello would you mind letting me know which webhost you’re using?
    I’ve loaded your blog in 3 completely different web browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot faster then most.
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  7. Margaret Gallagher
    1 July, 2016 / 11:22 am

    It’s all about education
    Don’t think it’s contagious
    That’s putting it rather a funny way and it wasn’t a British study

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