Learning What Teens Knew and Thought About AIDS in the Early Years

By the early 1990s, AIDS had reached epidemic proportions in the United States—touching nearly every corner of society, including adolescents. Education efforts focused on young people were launched to help control the spread of the disease among that population, and researchers began to investigate teens’ knowledge of and attitudes toward AIDS, and how such knowledge and attitudes are associated with sexual behaviors.

In 1990, Perspectives published a study by John Anderson and his colleagues at the CDC that analyzed data from the first nationally representative survey to assess knowledge of HIV and AIDS among high school students, conducted the previous year. They found that just over half of students reported having been taught about HIV in school, yet virtually all knew the two main ways it can be transmitted (sex and sharing needles), and nine out of 10 knew that condoms protect against infection. Students with greater knowledge of HIV and AIDS were more likely to always use condoms and less likely to have had multiple partners; having been taught about HIV and AIDS in school, however, was not associated with these outcomes.

In another article, published in Perspectives in 1994, Lilly Langer et al. examined whether Miami-area high school students considered preventing AIDS more or less important than preventing pregnancy. The largest proportion of males (48%) considered preventing AIDS more important, whereas the largest proportion of females (55%) thought both equally important; few (4% of females and 7% of males) considered pregnancy prevention more important. In addition, the more knowledge students had about HIV and AIDS, the less importance they placed on pregnancy prevention.

The studies’ findings demonstrated the difficulty of developing effective educational interventions to help adolescents protect themselves from both HIV and unintended pregnancy.

Cover illustrations of Margaret Sanger © Matthew and Eve Levine