There is clear evidence that risky sexual behavior harms young people. More than two million people ages 15 to 24 across the globe contract HIV each year, including more than 17,000 American young people. Four million U.S. teens experience a sexually-transmitted infection each year. And between 750,000 and 900,000 teenage women in the U.S. become pregnant each year.
These statistics demonstrate that we need to teach young people about making safe sexual choices. Last fall, a systematic review published in the Journal of Sex Research highlighted one approach: peer education.
First, what is peer education? Simply, it means learning from people in the same social group – whether that is age, sexual orientation, culture or interests.
For the review, researchers from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill identified 15 studies that measured how much students learned during peer-led sex education classes, whether their attitudes toward sex changed, how much they focused on the program and whether the program led to a change in their sexual behavior.
Twelve of the studies found students who participated in peer-led sex education programs improved their knowledge about sexual behaviors and consequences. A total of 13 studies measured students’ attitudes toward sex, and eight found “significant” improvements. The review classified all studies as having a high level of peer participation showed improvement in attitudes.
The review also concluded that students in peer-led programs were more focused during the lessons and found sex education to be more interesting.
However, there was one major gap in the power of peer-led sex education: changes in sexual behavior. Ten of the studies included in the review measured changes in behavior. Three of them found some improvements, six found students made no changes in behavior, one reported mixed results, and two did not report the results. There were two studies that found students were 5 percent more likely to use a condom after the training, but that result was not statistically significant. The vast majority of researchers wrote that studies need to follow students over a longer period of time to record changes in behavior.
At the Bronfenbrenner Center, ACT for Youth has recently taken a deeper look at the question of peer education. Mary Maley, the director of the Research Synthesis Project, has compiled the findings of six review articles into a new Research fACTs and Findings article that summarizes what we know about peer education’s effectiveness.
Over the last several decades the quantity and quality of evaluation research in the teen pregnancy prevention field has improved dramatically. We now have persuasive evidence that programs can delay sexual activity, improve contraceptive use and ultimately prevent teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. There is a substantial collection of evidence-based adolescent sexual health programs that have been rigorously evaluated and demonstrate success in achieving positive outcomes over time.
While peer-led education programs offer a promising approach in changing knowledge and attitudes, they require more rigorous scientific study to demonstrate success in changing behavioral outcomes before they can be considered “evidence-based.”