03/31/2013 12:51 pm ET Updated May 31, 2013

Fighting Teen Pregnancy With Peer Influence

Last week, the Human Resources Administration released a series of ads designed to discourage teen pregnancy. Whether or not the now-controversial ads will have an impact on pregnancy rates remains to be seen, but what we do know is that there is still reason to be concerned about teen pregnancy rates (despite the 27 percent decrease in the last decade).

The fact of the matter is that there are still more than 20,000 teen pregnancies per year in New York City, 87 percent of which are unintended. That's a stunning and completely preventable number.

Obviously, programs such as expanded sex education, access to reproductive health centers in schools, direct access to contraceptives, and other strategies adopted by New York City work well and should be continued. For example, we at CHN implemented best practices to increase contraceptive use among teens in one of our clinics from just over 40 percent to over 90 percent. However, all of these approaches involve adults talking to teens. There is one tool in our toolbox that we have under-employed: having teens talk to teens.

We need to reach more young people, earlier on, and in a way that connects even with those hard-to-reach teens who refuse to take direction from the adults in their lives whom they have come to dismiss as patronizing or clueless. And, for those of us who have not been in high school for a long, long time, let us not forget the immense power of peer pressure.

Adults often underestimate, or choose to ignore, just how much influence children exert over their peers -- and this influence becomes ever more pervasive as children go through their teen years, struggling to shape their own world views apart from (and often in contrast to) their childhood authority figures.

Examples of the strength of peer influence abound in our own homes and across popular culture. What parent of a teen has not pulled out their hair one time or another as their child comes home with newly-pierced earlobes or the telltale signs of cigarette smoke? And, how many of us can think back and remember that for those deeply private, embarrassing questions, we ourselves preferred going to our older siblings or friends rather than to our well-meaning parents or a medical professional?

To effectively encourage teens to make the right decisions about sex, their relationships, and their health, we need to expand our strategies to include more teen-to-teen education.

At Community Healthcare Network, we have successfully adopted just such an approach with our Teens PACT "More Than Just Sex" initiative. The program allows teens to facilitate workshops at community-based organizations, to host educational events, and to promote access to sexual health services through street outreach and social networking. In 2012, we reached more than 2,500 teens through this program. Teen participants in our program also create PSAs that address issues facing young people today and that are written by the teens in a way that connects with their peers, encouraging them to make good choices about their health, about sex and about relationships.

At the end of the day, all that matters is that teens not only have access to the information and health services that can help them prevent unintended pregnancy, but that they do not feel judged or "uncool" when they do access these services. We should not ignore the importance of peer influence in our efforts to reach teens -- rather, we should take advantage of it and turn it into yet another tool that will help us reduce unintended teen pregnancies in New York City to a number much closer to zero.