Adolescent Sexual Health Education Does It Work? Can It Work Better? an Analysis of Recent Research and Media Reports. (Commentary)

By McKay, Alexander; Fisher, William et al. | The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, Fall-Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Adolescent Sexual Health Education Does It Work? Can It Work Better? an Analysis of Recent Research and Media Reports. (Commentary)


McKay, Alexander, Fisher, William, Maticka-Tyndale, Eleanor, Barrett, Michael, The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality


ABSTRACT: This commentary examines and critiques a recent research report (DiCenso, Guyatt, Willan, & Griffith, 2002) and subsequent media coverage suggesting that adolescent sex education programs "don't work". Evidence supporting the efficacy of adolescent sexual health education programs is described and priority issues for the field are identified.

Key words: Adolescent sexuality education Evaluation Media Program effectiveness

INTRODUCTION

Every so often, the subject of sexuality education in the schools pops up in the media and, thus, in the collective consciousness. The most recent case of this occurred on June 14, 2002, when major Canadian media outlets rushed to inform us that a meta-analytic study conducted by Canadian researchers published that day in The British Medical Journal demonstrated that sexuality education, and particularly pregnancy prevention, does not work (see Dicenso, Guyatt, Willan, & Griffith, 2002). The national newspapers, armed with quotes from the study's lead author, were unequivocal in making this assessment. The Globe and Mail put the story on page 2 with the headline "Sex-ed Lessons for Teens Seem to Go Unlearned" (Honey, 2002) and quoted Alba DiCenso from McMaster University, saying that her study showed that "... we don't have it right yet and we need to do a lot more careful work". Not to be outdone, the National Post put the story on the front page with the headline "Pregnancy Prevention an Utter Failure: Study" (Humphreys, 2002) with an almost identical statement from DiCenso: "we obviously don't have it right yet". The overriding message, bolstered by the flurry of radio talk show segments that followed on the topic, seemed to be that sex education programs that are aimed at postponing intercourse or encouraging the use of birth control "don't work" (The Globe and Mail's words). Furthermore, it was implied that educators providing sexuality education to youth do not currently have access to adequate theoretical and practical insights that would enable them to craft educational programs that do work. (Presumably, the "we" who "obviously don't have it right yet" are the researchers and educators working in the field of adolescent sexuality education.)

Not surprisingly, the results of DiCenso et al.'s (2002) meta-analysis, and the media's interpretation of them, were disappointing for educators and program planners who have struggled, often in vain, to see even minimal programs of sexual health education established and taught in the schools. Particularly frustrating was the notion that the considerable efforts expended on developing research-based programs was futile since, apparently, the research had nothing useful to tell other than that efforts to date had been a failure. But most disillusioning was the fear that the prevailing perception would now be that sexuality education programs for adolescents have been a waste of time and money and that the DiCenso et al. (2002) study would be flung in the faces of program planners and advocates by those who would sometimes rather forget about or minimize the need for sex education. In sum, the publication of the study and the subsequent media reporting and interpretation of it appeared as blow to field.

Did the DiCenso et al. (2002) meta-analysis really demonstrate that sex education doesn't work? Is it accurate to infer from the findings of this study that current research on adolescent sexual health education is insufficient to provide sexuality educators with strategies to effectively help teens manage their sexual and reproductive health? What about sexuality education in Canadian schools? Does this study tell us it's not working? To answer these questions, a number of avenues of investigation need to be explored, beginning with the study itself.

THE STUDY

The DiCenso et al. (2002) study titled "Interventions to Reduce Unintended Pregnancies Among Adolescents: Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials" was published in the British Medical Journal, a well respected, peer-reviewed academic journal. …

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