Inadequate Knowledge About Contraception is Common Among Young Adults

New Study Suggests Improving Contraceptive Knowledge May Positively Influence Behavior, Reducing Risk of Unplanned Pregnancy

More than half of young men and a quarter of young women who participated in a 2009 survey displayed serious gaps in knowledge about common contraceptive methods, according to "Young Adults' Contraceptive Knowledge, Norms and Attitudes: Associations with Risk of Unintended Pregnancy," by Jennifer Frost et al. of the Guttmacher Institute. The authors found that the lower the level of contraceptive knowledge among young women, the greater the likelihood that they expected to have unprotected sex in the next three months, behavior that puts them at risk for an unplanned pregnancy. These findings come on the heels of a study that found that women in their 20s have the highest risk of experiencing an unintended pregnancy.

The authors relied on data collected through telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,800 unmarried women and men aged 18–29 as part of the 2009 National Survey of Reproductive and Contraceptive Knowledge, which aimed to better understand the characteristics associated with risky contraceptive practices among young adults.

The analyses also reveal that although most unmarried young adults are trying to avoid pregnancy, many are not taking the necessary precautions to do so or have conflicting attitudes about pregnancy and contraceptive use. Sixty-nine percent of young women and 45% of young men were highly committed to avoiding pregnancy. Some 25% thought that using condoms every time one has sex is a hassle, 60% underestimated the effectiveness of oral contraceptives and 40% held the fatalistic view that using birth control does not matter. The more strongly men and women agreed that regular condom use is "too much of a hassle," the more likely they were to expect to have unprotected sex.

In addition, women's greater contraceptive knowledge was related to an increased likelihood that they used hormonal or long-acting methods, while expectations of side effects were associated with lowered use of these highly effective methods. The study also revealed that peers' attitudes are linked to behavior: The more strongly young women believe that their friends consider using birth control important, the more likely they are to rely on hormonal or long-acting methods.

"This study provides valuable evidence that improving young adults' contraceptive knowledge and dispelling common misconceptions can help change their behavior for the better," says Frost. "We found disturbingly low levels of knowledge among this high-risk age-group, indicating an urgent need for new educational strategies aimed at improving contraceptive use and reducing the risk of unplanned pregnancy."

"Young Adults' Contraceptive Knowledge, Norms and Attitudes: Associations with Risk of Unintended Pregnancy" is currently available online and will appear in the June 2012 issue of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.

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