Teenagers are highly impressionable people, and throughout their education in high school they are immersed in an environment full of temptations. The hormonal changes that occur in a teen can sometimes further the effect of these temptations. One of these environmental influences involves sexual activity, which when engaged in rashly as teens tend to do, result in detrimental consequences such as sexually transmitted diseases. The statistics on teenage sexual activity is unfavorable: 47.4% high school teens have engaged in sexual intercourse, 39.8-76.7% had not used birth control of any kind1. In 2009, teens accounted for 39% of all new HIV infections in the United States (US)1,2.
In July 2009, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released their analysis of national data collected between 2002 and 2007. Their findings included: that birth rates among U.S. teens had increased in 2006 and 2007, about one-third of adolescents had not received instructions on methods of birth control before age 18, In 2004, there were about 745,000 pregnancies among females younger than 20, including an estimated 16,000 pregnancies among girls between 10 and 142. Reflecting on the grim trends in the US, Janet Collins, director of the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, stated that “this report identifies a number of concerns regarding the sexual and reproductive health of our nation's young people... It is disheartening that after years of improvement with respect to teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, we now see signs that progress is stalling and many of these trends are going in the wrong direction2.”
The scary facts about teen sexual activity are the result of lack of formal sexual education. Sex education can be taught at a number of places or from a number of sources—schools, parents, religious institutions, and peers. While some school and parents are open to teaching their teens about sexual activity and its consequences, other more conservative places tend to only send one message to teens regarding sexual activity: abstinence only. This message and the morality of sexual behavior are heavily passed on by Catholic churches and schools3—a message that can backfire in teaching teens effectively.
Criticism of Intervention 1: The Intervention Assumes Adolescents Have Self-Control
Sexuality and sexual behavior are natural inclinations for a teenager. The hormonal changes, surroundings, and peers heavily influence and strengthen the urge to act on sexual tendencies. Because their brains are not fully matured, and the consequences are that anatomical and neural differences in teens are not as capable as adults are in making sound decisions and anticipate consequences of sexual behavior6.
The method that Catholic churches use in teaching teens about the consequences of sexual behavior at a young age assume that adolescents have more self-control than they actually have. Many conservative Catholic churches teach teens that premarital sex is morally incompatible with Bible teachings. To add to the immorality of premarital sex, some churches convey that contraception even by married couples is a sin7. Furthermore, the notion of educating teens on contraception as a means for safer sex is futile as this would suggest that premarital sex is morally permissible. Abstinence only is the only education that is in accord with many Catholic churches’ teachings7. However, given what is known about the biology behind self-control in adolescents, simply conveying the message that teens should abstain from having sex until marriage without explaining the non-religious consequences and relying on teen to completely go against their natural, hormonal urges is taking a naïve approach. In order for Catholic churches to effectively reach out to their youth about sexual education and behavior, they must understand the biology behind teens’ behaviors and tailor their message to accommodate the irrational urges of adolescents.
Catholic churches and schools teach their followers about sex in terms of God, the Bible, and morality. There is no openness to change but rather passing down of dogma: sex before marriage is a sin, Abstinence Only. Numerous medical organizations have vehemently criticized abstinence only education—all of who maintain that sex education needs to be comprehensive to be effective8-12. These groups advocate programs for sex education that advocate condom use available to students, provide factual information and skill-building related to reproductive biology, sexual abstinence, sexual responsibility, contraceptives, other birth control options, and other methods used to educate youth about prevention of pregnancy and sexual transmission of disease10, 11. Teens will always explore the unknown, but armed with this information they can at least engage in sexual activity in a safe way.
Criticism of Intervention 2: Catholic Church Does Not “Lead by Example”
Catholic churches preach to a congregation about teachings from the Bible that lay out what is moral and what is not. They simply use the Bible to convince teens and young adults that premarital sex is immoral and a sin. It does not “lead by example” for its people. Instead, what priests believe is that leading by example is not necessary; they expect that the stories and messages in the Bible are enough to steer followers in the right way of life. This method of teaching may not speak out to the youth whereas a better way would be to behave in such a way that delivers information and demonstrates behavior.
Methods for accomplishing this include but are not limited to the priest sensationalizing and taking advantage of hands or props to teach, including his own accounts that relate to the biblical stories that may include mistakes he made in the past, or inviting celebrities to endorse the messages and lessons from the Bible. The alternative use of words, the conveying of his own trials and tribulations13, the bringing in of celebrities will gain youths’ attention because teens can relate to the priest or even just think the priest is “cool” for bringing in a celebrity. By conveying a message—whether an enthusiastic priest or famous person—these messengers should talk about topics or even use similar words that help teenagers identify with their authorities.
Criticism of Intervention 3: Catholic Church Message Limit Adolescents’ Behavior
As mentioned earlier, traditional Catholic churches teach by taking verses directly out of the Bible that state, in so many words, that premarital sex will lead to a horrendous afterlife or a life in Hell. There are many verses from the Book of Genesis that convey that only a man and woman can engage in sexual intercourse but only once they have the blessings of God. This implies that only married, heterosexual couples can have sexual intercourse. The result of disobeying God has dangerous, terrible consequences as the Book of Genesis describes14. Churches quote these messages to their followers as a scare tactic for Catholic churches to maintain control over the masses. As a result, those who are highly religious or impressionable youth fearfully abide by something extreme and avoid what is natural for them.
As children exhibit certain characteristics early in life, adolescence is a whole other stage of life. Teens rapidly change into people who parents can hardly recognize or understand. On the other hand, teens also feel that authorities do not understand them, and consequently, this may manifest in violent behavior, depression, drug or alcohol abuse, and more reckless behavior. Parents often become frustrated and try to discipline their loved ones, but teens respond with fights and open defiance. Another consequence of attempting discipline is that teenagers develop their own identity and assert their independence—again resulting in open defiance or reckless behavior. Because of these challenges in raising an adolescent, it is important for parents to balance the processes of giving some space for their teen and becoming in tune to with their teen’s needs and desires.
New Intervention Proposal: Practice What It Preaches to Motivate Teens to Empower Themselves in Practicing Safer Sex or Abstinence
An intervention that sends the message to adolescence that delayed sexual activity until adulthood is the mature way to handle behavior. A new intervention should address the fact that teens will engage in sexual intercourse, sometimes recklessly and unplanned, and send a message that it is “cool” to practice abstinence or use protection to be safe.
The intervention that uses the media, specifically sensational actors and actresses, to convey how “cool” and “popular” abstinence is will empower youth to take control of their emotions. Adolescents deify celebrities and readily copy or model their own appearances and behaviors after these famous people. By hearing or seeing celebrities discuss abstinence in a good light, teens will quickly adopt this pattern in the process of taking control over their emotions. Celebrities can also assuage teens about their feelings by telling them that these emotions are normal and a part of developing into young adults. These models can then simply educate teens about how to go about dealing with their emotions in a safe and positive way.
Catholic churches and schools can do the same thing and accomplish the same results. Priests and nuns who speak out to their congregation can discuss their own or loved ones’ experiences as examples of how abstinence was a good habit. This in addition to celebrities sending a message will show youth that these people experienced the same issues and temptations. Upon hearing these accounts, teens will feel like they can relate to authority and that they are not alone in battling these challenges. In addition to encouraging youth by example, religious figures can address the fact that these feelings are completely normal and that if one chooses to engage in sexual activity, one should do so safely. Instead of preaching without explaining why, priests and nuns should explain the biological consequences of reckless sexual activity instead of simply preaching that it is a sin. By explaining these things, religious figures will give a rationale and teens will be less likely to rebel because they do not understand.
Defense of New Intervention 1: Understanding Psychology of Target Populace Will Help Empower Teens
Catholic churches need to work with adolescents by coming to terms with the notion that teens do not exercise much self control4,5. Instead of making assumptions, the powers that be in Catholic churches should understand the biology behind a teen’s behavior. Teens are already confused by their own feelings and thoughts. With authorities being just as confused if not more, then nothing can be accomplished in terms of guiding these highly impressionable young people.
Theory of Planned Behavior is a theory that involves one’s attitude toward behavior, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control. There is the assumption that people think about what they are going to do before they do it—that people are rational beings15. This is not the case in adolescents—as discussed above, teens experiences many changes in their brains while developing but still do not reach full potential in terms of cognition6. The hormonal changes that occur in a teen affect his/her feelings about the other sex (or same sex), bodies also start to develop in ways that confuse him/her, and curiosity of sexuality in general peaks. Given that a teen’s cognition and judgments are already impaired, the tendency to act irrationally can be strong.
With positive and negative influences surrounding them, a teen may have problems choosing which way to go. As an institution that has potential to guide adolescents, there have to be realistic expectations for teens in order to guide them effectively. If not, efforts will only be wasted in vain and teens may go astray or possibly be stunned by the consequences of their unplanned behavior. Catholics churches teach from the Bible, which can be antiquated and not account for the modern teen. It is important for priests and nuns to realize that teens in the 21st century are not comparable. Because they are more susceptible to peer pressure, priests and nuns should be progressive and take measures to allow teens to empower themselves. Teens should be equipped with the tools to make rational decisions.
Defense of New Intervention 2: Catholic Churches Should Show Understanding so that Teens Will Not Feel Alone
Young people trend toward highly resistant actions in response to authority5,14. They are also influenced by their surroundings and peers. When a teen sees his/her friend behaving a certain way, he/she follows in suit. If a parent or another authority figure disciplines an adolescent with no explanation, the adolescent tends to view this authority as foreign or not understanding. The young person feels isolated or alone as a response. In the same light, if a priest tries to discipline with no explanation other than to say that the Bible says the truth or that God will punish those who sin, not only will a teen feel alone, but also feel “damned if I do, damned if I don’t.” This can be a very offensive and cause a teen to run away or rebel.
Social Cognitive Theory describes a dynamic, ongoing process in which personal factors, environmental factors, and human behavior exert influence upon each other16. In other words, people act by observing and model behavior that they see. It should be obvious by now that teens are influenced by their surroundings—they see what peers or any other appealing human does and try to mimic the same behaviors. The way that Catholic churches approach the topic of sexual behavior and lessons does not incorporate or put into practice this social behavioral theory.
As a religious institution, Catholic churches’ priests and nuns have a practice or habit of talking at their congregation or students, not talking to them. There is a difference—talking at refers to the act of objectively or standing separately to spread a message. There is nothing personable about this act or message. What teens need though is someone or a group that can make them feel included or accepting of their confusion. If religious figures can tell a story about themselves, about their own peers, or even bring in celebrities to talk about sex and consequences of unplanned sexual behavior, it will help a teen feel that his/her feelings about sexual thoughts or experiences are normal and nothing to be ashamed of or rebel in defense. These methods of reaching out will help a teen feel like adults are relatable and not people to disobey. Thereby, priests and nuns will be more likely to send effective and influential messages about sex.
Defense of New Intervention 3: Catholic Churches Need to Allow Teens to Make Choices
Catholic churches that are funded by federal money or local charitable donations have a responsibility to make good use of these funds. If wasted, the donors can be unforgiving and withdraw their support. For this reason, churches should be motivated to guide their followers effectively—this can be most challenging in guiding adolescents. Oppressing adolescents in any way can exacerbate this challenge or task.
It is a teen’s response, or anyone’s for that matter, to act against what deprives him/her of freedom. Psychological Reactance Theory explains just that—threats to freedom create a combination of positive and negative forces, and the resulting behavior is a function of these opposing behaviors17. Adolescents experience antagonism from a variety of sources: their teachers, parents, bullies, and even religious guides. During a time in their life when the desire for sexual expression is raging, their curiosity can lead them to dangerous consequences. Approaching them about this topic is a delicate situation that must be handled with sensitivity.
Catholic churches teach about positive stories from the Bible that are meant to teach its disciples about morals and life lessons. In giving these lessons about sexual behaviors, there is the tendency to simply preach that it is wrong to engage in any acts before marriage. Teens are likely to rebel against such lessons, especially if they are not given any rationale for this lesson. Instead of restricting teens’ freedom of sexual behavior, churches should let teens feel that they have complete freedom and that it is their choice to decide what is the best thing to do. The truth is that one cannot change a person’s behavior, one can only change his/her reaction to that behavior: if an adolescent has made up his/her mind to have sexual intercourse, a priest, nun, parent, teacher, etc. cannot necessarily change this teen’s mind. However, authorities can change their reactions to a teen’s behavior: teach the adolescent about safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and other consequences of sex. The teen might change his/her mind and wait or be motivated to at least be responsible about it.
Statistics about teen sexual behavior and consequences are grim. Adolescents are still not getting accurate or sometimes any information about birth control or sexually transmitted diseases. The rates of sexually transmitted diseases among teens steadily increase with each year. The number of young women with unplanned pregnancies and abortion also increase each year. It is the responsibility of the authorities in adolescents’ lives to provide information about the consequences of irrational and irresponsible sexual behavior. Catholic churches are strong sources of guidance; however, their messages are simply: abstinence only. Statistics and studies show that this public health intervention does not work well. A better public health intervention that Catholic churches need to endorse should involve important social behavioral theories that will lead to more effective sexual education for adolescents.
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