Days after a major news magazine reported that there was a teen pregnancy pact at a Massachusetts high school, parents and school officials struggle to understand why girls might participate in such a scheme.
The disturbing report was published by Time magazine in its Wednesday online edition, following reports of an unusually high number of pregnancy test requests at the school clinic at Gloucester High School. By the end of the school year, 17 girls were pregnant -- a figure more than four times higher than that of the year before for the 1,200 students at the school.
Psychological experts say that pacts among teens, adopted for any number of reasons, are actually quite normal.
"Kids make pacts," says Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta and a professor at Emory University's School of Medicine. "It's kind of a way to feel like a part of an in group. It gives kids an identity they share."
But in some cases, the stakes are far higher than most parents know. While some teen pacts are relatively benign agreements, other such arrangements have been shown to involve much more dangerous behaviors -- among them drug use and suicide.
"Teen pact behavior -- whether to get pregnant or to commit suicide -- has the same underlying characteristics," notes Dr. Carole Lieberman, Beverly Hills psychiatrist and a clinical faculty member at UCLA. "The act the teenagers conjure up together is forbidden and self-destructive, and therefore must be kept secret."
And as with many past instances of teen pacts -- such as an April 2007 suicide pact in Australia and another in June of the same year in Ireland -- the parents of the teens involved likely had little clue as to what was going on until it was too late.
"The members of the pact develop trust, camaraderie and rebelliousness by sharing this secret," Lieberman says. "These bonds then impel them to commit the forbidden act that they wouldn't have the courage to do on their own."
This, combined with the sense of invincibility that many teens possess,
"[Teens] don't think through the future consequences that come with a lot of these decisions," Kaslow says. "I think that's the big challenge in this pact; most 17-year-old girls are not ready to be mothers.
"This is something that will alter the decisions they make for the rest of their lives."
Are Media Messages to Blame?
In the realm of health trends in the United States, the direction of teen pregnancy over the past decade and a half has been a public health success story.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, teen pregnancy rates hit an historic high in 1990, topping out at 116.8 pregnancies per 1,000 young women between the ages of 15 and 19. A decade later, the numbers had tailed off dramatically, sinking to 84.8 per 1,000 in 2000. In 2004, the rate drifted even lower to 72.2 per 1,000.
But NCHS data released last December reveal what could be the beginning of an unwelcome trend. In 2006, birth rates for teens between the ages of 15 and 17 rose 3 percent.
Teen birth rates are a subtly different measure than teen pregnancy rates, but the numbers are still a source of concern for parents and public health experts alike. And some have cited pop culture glorification of teen pregnancy as an explanation for the bump in births.
"There is no doubt that the media influence people -- consciously and unconsciously -- to copycat what is portrayed, whether it's to become violent or to become pregnant," Lieberman says. "Movies like 'Juno' or 'Knocked Up,' soap operas, and pregnant teen celebrities like Jamie Lynn Spears make teen girls believe that getting pregnant is cool, regardless of your age, and whether you love -- or even know -- the father."
The other element that some say may have come into play is the copycat factor -- a phenomenon in which young viewers imitate what they see in the media. One illustration of this principle occurred in 1993; some who had watched the film "The Program," imitated a scene in the movie in which high school football players lay on the center line of a highway to test their courage. One of these real-life imitators died after being struck by a car.
More recently, following the broadcast of the 2006 hanging of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, reports filtered in from around the world of children hanging themselves after witnessing video of the event.
Kaslow says media images may have also played a part if there was a pregnancy pact at Gloucester High.
"There is a certain level of 'copycat' to this," she says. "I think you see that also with teen suicide and the Columbine tragedy. They knew that they would get attention when they did this. All of a sudden, these kids have become famous."
But she cautions that the media alone are not to blame.
"I do think that the media is one part of the story, but they are certainly not the only part, or even the driving part," she notes. "You have to look at factors on the individual level, the family level, the school level and within a bigger cultural context."
Breaking the Pact Mentality
Fortunately, psychological experts note, there are many things that parents can do at home to lessen the likelihood that their children will be swept into a detrimental agreement with their peers.
"Teenagers who enter into pacts are feeling neglected and estranged from their parents, Lieberman says. "The teenage years are fraught with challenges to their fragile emotions, so parents need to stay closely involved with their teen's life."
Kaslow agrees that strong parental ties go a long way against the power of teen pacts.
"What you want to do is have a relationship with your kid where they can talk to you about it," she says. "You want to be close enough to your kids to talk about life and death, about baby-making, about drugs and alcohol."