WASHINGTON - The nation's campaign to get more teenagers to delay sex and use condoms is faltering, threatening to undermine the highly successful effort to reduce teen pregnancy and protect young people from sexually transmitted diseases, federal officials reported yesterday.
New data from a large government survey show that by every measure, the decade-long decline in sexual activity among high school students leveled off between 2001 and 2007, and the increase in condom use by teens flattened out in 2003.
Moreover, the survey found disturbing hints that teen sexual activity may have begun creeping up and that condom use among high school students might be edging down, though those trend lines have not yet reached a point where statisticians can be sure, officials said.
"The bottom line is in all these areas we don't seem to be making the progress we were making before," said Howell Wechsler, director of the division of adolescent and school health at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which conducts the survey.
Coming on the heels of reports that 1 in 4 teenage girls has a sexually transmitted disease and that the teen birth rate has increased for the first time in 15 years, the report is triggering alarm across the ideological spectrum.
"We have a number of signs that are all going exactly in the wrong direction," said Sarah S. Brown, chief executive of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "All of us in this field are on red alert."
The new report did not examine the reason for the trends, but specialists said there could be many causes, including rising complacency about AIDS, changing attitudes about sex and pregnancy, shifts in ethnic diversity, and the possibility that there will always be some teens who cannot be persuaded to wait.
"There are lots of theories: the economy, classroom education, the messages kids are getting in the digital world where they spend their time. They probably all play a role," Brown said.
But the new figures renewed the debate about sex education classes that focus on abstinence until marriage, which began receiving federal funding during the period covered by the latest survey and have come under increasing criticism that they are ineffective
"We may be witnessing the beginning of a trend where we're reaping the harvest of medically inaccurate and ineffective sex education, which is abstinence-until-marriage sex education," said Michael Resnick, who studies teen sexual behavior at the University of Minnesota.
The report comes as Congress is debating whether to reauthorize another $50 million more in funding for sex education programs.