At the beginning of the 21st century puberty occurred three years earlier on average than it did in most western societies a century earlier – probably largely because of improved nutrition. For New Zealanders in the early 21st century, puberty increasingly began before the teenage years, although the general trend toward earlier puberty seemed to be slowing.
Beginning to have sex during the teenage years (often with the sanction of marriage) has been the norm throughout recorded history. Since the late 1960s most New Zealanders have had their first sexual experience during their teens and outside marriage.
Perceptions that teenagers are having sex earlier and earlier, and that more of them are doing so, are unfounded. In 2012, 8% of 13-year-olds reported that they had had sex. The likelihood of sexual experiences rose with age, and just under half of those aged 17 and over reported having sex. Only 46% of teenagers used a condom every time they had sex.
According to New Scientist humans are the only animals that have a prolonged adolescence spanning the second decade of life. Other species quickly make the transition from juveniles to adults. Adolescence seems to have evolved to allow humans to acquire new mental, physical and social skills.
Teen marriages were relatively uncommon in the 21st century, yet in 1971 one in three marriages involved teenage women. Many of these were ‘shotgun weddings’, where the couple married due to pregnancy. In the 19th century and through most of the 20th century, teenage pregnancy outside of marriage generated moral disapproval. Children born to unmarried mothers were defined as ‘illegitimate’, and were often adopted out.
From the 1960s, more teenage mothers began keeping their babies, and attitudes changed. In the 21st century teen pregnancy was seen more as a socio-economic problem leading to a cycle of poverty and welfare dependency than a moral issue. In the 2010s the teen pregnancy rate dropped, but when compared with other developed countries, the rate was still high. The rate for Māori women was considerably higher than for all teenage women. The abortion rate for teenagers more than doubled between 1980 and 2007, but then rapidly dropped, reaching early 1980s rates by 2014.
Motherhood can limit the career prospects of young women. Pregnancy at a time when the mother is still physically maturing also brings higher medical risk factors for both mother and child. Some secondary schools have Teen Parent Units funded by the Ministry of Education. These have childcare facilities which allow young mothers to continue their schooling.
Sex education was prohibited in schools in 1945. Even by the late 1960s, only a few schools provided some very limited sex education in the sixth form, and plans to extend the sex-education programme were opposed by conservatives in the 1970s. It was illegal to even discuss contraception with an under-16-year-old until 1989. More comprehensive sex education was introduced in 1989, although schools could opt out of teaching the sex-education components of the health curriculum.
From 2001 both primary and secondary schools taught classes on sexuality (sexual orientation) and sex (the physical act). Students could opt out of sexuality education, but not sex education. Teaching younger students was necessary, as some were entering puberty before the age of 10.
The trend of pre-teen girls emulating the dress styles of teenage girls has led to the use of the term ‘tweenie’ to describe 9–12-year-olds. Concerns from parents, typically amplified by the media, are that their children are growing up too soon and losing their innocence.
While sex education provides information about the risks of sexually transmitted infections, and how to prevent them, many teenagers do not consistently use condoms. Teenagers are the age group most likely to have multiple partners, and least likely to recognise and prevent sexually transmitted infections. School sex education often failed to address the social context in which much teenage sex took place – outside of relationships, and often under the influence of alcohol.