The Known Unknowns

Sometimes I just have to let Donald Rumsfeld say it for me: "... there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns-there are things we do not know we don't know." Makes total sense, right?

Here are some known knowns: teen pregnancy and birth rates have dropped dramatically among all racial and ethnic groups over the past two decades-51% among African-American and white teens and 40% among Hispanic teens The teen birth rate is down 52%. There are only two ways to avoid pregnancy. Don't have sex or use protection correctly. Teens have been doing more of both. Media can be a powerful force for good: just this week, new research showed that MTV's 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom helped accelerate the decline in teen births. The recent economic downturn also played a role. Teen pregnancy is not inevitable. We didn't always know that.

There are also some known unknowns: Why, in the heat of the moment, does a teenager make the decision to say "no" to sex? Or to use contraception? Or to insist on their partner using contraception? Probably unknowable, although we do know that there are many efforts that are effective at helping teens make a firm commitment to delay pregnancy and parenthood. Continued progress requires a deeper commitment to these efforts, not a retreat from them.

One thing that can get us closer to understanding the unknown is so simple but so hard to do right: listen to young people. Understand that they-just like adults-make decisions about sex in the larger context of their lives and relationships. Get to know what they think, aspire to, and regret. What gets in the way of the future they envision for themselves? What do they want from the adults in their lives? Our friends at MEE Productions-leaders in understanding and communicating with inner city youth-just published the Inner City Truth 3 survey report, which is packed with insights from low-income urban minority youth on a wide range of topics. These are the young people who are often overlooked in national surveys, yet are more likely to experience teen pregnancy and other issues. The survey-the third in 10 years-was ambitious and painstakingly conducted in person with more than 1,700 African-American and Hispanic teens ages 16-20 over a period of five months, in partnership with community organizations that helped their teens trust the project.

They gave candid answers: 37% of African-American males have witnessed violence; 22% of Hispanic females have experienced chronic bullying at school; 25% of African-American females have experienced dating violence. Education tops the list of what's most important to these teens, followed by giving to others and providing for their families. A whopping 99% have access to the Internet, and 83% have smartphones. They are more likely to keep in touch with friends by text than by face-to-face communication. When it comes to sex-as with most teens-aspirations are high but don't always match up with actions: Most (74%) say having a baby as a teen is a big deal and 71% say pregnancy should be planned, but 25% have had unprotected sex in the last three months. And one in five (23%) believes that even if you're using contraception, if it's "your time" to get pregnant, you probably will. Still, one-third (32%) said they would feel more comfortable using contraception if more people talked about it in a positive way. Good to know, given the negativity that so often accompanies public conversations about contraception.

Even with the remarkable progress on teen pregnancy, 45% of African-American teen girls and 40% of Hispanic teen girls still get pregnant at least once before age 20-which is more than one and a half times higher than the national average. We know that listening, and being open to what we hear, will help us keep moving in a positive direction. The Inner City Truth 3 report is a great place to start. It might even shed light on some unknown unknowns.

Authored by: Marisa Nightingale

As The National Campaign’s Senior Media Advisor, Marisa Nightingale leads key partnerships with entertainment media executives to help harness the power of popular media to reduce teen and unplanned pregnancy. She and her colleagues provide expertise, information, and hands-on help to media decision-makers whose content is most popular with teens, young adults, and their parents.

Marisa joined the Campaign in 1996, shortly after its founding, and is the architect of its nationally-recognized Entertainment Media program. She served as the program’s Senior Director for 12 years and continues to advise on strategy and cultivate message integration partnerships with outlets including NBC, FOX, ABC, The CW, Hulu, Marie Claire, Family Circle, Essence, Latina and more, with a special emphasis on reaching Latino audiences. Public Service Announcement (PSA) campaigns developed under her direction have won multiple awards and garnered millions of dollars in free placements. She played a leadership role in the conception, development and launch of "Thanks, Birth Control," a social media effort that engages individuals and organizations in a positive public conversation about all that birth control makes possible.

Prior to joining The National Campaign, Marisa was the Communications Director at Share Our Strength (SOS), a leading national voice in the fight against hunger. At SOS, she worked with journalists, chefs, corporate partners, and community organizations to address the causes and consequences of hunger and poverty. Marisa is a guest lecturer at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business and is a seasoned speaker on the role of media in preventing teen and unplanned pregnancy and promoting social change. She has served as a Campaign spokesperson on The Today Show, The View, The Ricki Lake Show, NPR, USA Today, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. Marisa graduated with honors from Yale University and lives in Washington, DC with her husband, two children and a lively mutt.

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