WASHINGTON -- Positive peer pressure from close friends is helping teens avoid risky sexual behavior, according to reports issued today on Capitol Hill.
Rates of pregnancy, birth and abortion continue to drop among teens, according to a 50-state report released by the Alan Guttmacher Institute of New York.
The institute reported these national trends for 1996 among women ages 15 to 19:
* Pregnancy rates fell 4 percent from 1995, to 97 per 1,000 women.
* Birth rates also fell 4 percent, to 54 per 1,000.
* Abortion rates fell 3 percent, to 29 per 1,000.
Maryland's rates also declined significantly, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
* The state's teen pregnancy rate declined 10 percent, to 106 per 1,000 women.
* Births to teens also dropped 10 percent, to 46 births per 1,000.
* Abortions dropped 12 percent, to 46 abortions per 1,000.
In 1996, Maryland had the 13th-highest teen pregnancy rate, the 30th-highest birth rate and the fourth-highest abortion rate, the institute said.
"Teen pregnancy rates have been coming down since 1990, and birth rates have been coming down since 1990," said Isabel Saw-hill, president of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. That still means about 1 million teens are getting pregnant each year, she emphasized.
"Many groups want to take credit for the drop in teen-age pregnancy, but the credit truly goes to teen-agers," said Jacqueline Darroch, Guttmacher Institute vice president for research.
She attributed the decline to both decreased sexual activity and more effective use of contraception by teens.
Sawhill said, "The next, deeper question is, why did that happen?"
New polls and sociological studies aimed at finding the answer were paid for by her Washington research and advocacy group.
In telephone polls in March, teens and parents of teens were asked, "When it comes to decisions about sex, what influence do teens have on each other?" Their answers were almost identical: 57 percent of parents and 58 percent of teens said "very positive" or "somewhat positive."
Sexual activity rates are being lowered by a "domino effect," said a lead researcher, B. Bradford Brown, an educational psychologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He reasoned that, as fewer teens have sex or babies, more and more teens end up with close friends whose example, behavior and admonitions discourage early sexual debuts.
In the poll, peers were ranked as the second-biggest influence on teen sexual behavior, behind only parents.
When teens were asked who, aside from a boyfriend or girlfriend, influences a teen's decisions about sex, most named parents or guardians (38 percent) or peers (25 percent), followed by religion (14 percent) and TV, movies and musicians (8 percent).
Parents' answers were similar. Most named parents or guardians (55 percent) or peers (14 percent), followed by religion (13 percent) and TV, movies and musicians (11 percent).
The poll of 513 teens ages 12 to 17 and 303 parents of teens was conducted in March. It had a margin of error of 4.3 to 5.6 percentage points.
Similar support for the positive influence of teens on other teens emerged from a massive study of the social networks of more than 100,000 teens by sociologist Peter Bearman of Columbia University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"Girls who have mostly low-risk friends in their immediate circle of [up to 10] friends or in their peer group [a clique of up to 50 friends] are much less likely to transition to intercourse or to experience a pregnancy than girls who have average or high-risk friends," Bearman found.
By "high-risk," he meant those who have trouble with school or in relating to adults, or who frequently fight, get drunk, smoke, take dangerous dares or skip school without excuse.
Bearman said peer influence is more likely to be positive than negative because "adolescent girls are generally good judges of the others who are around and in relation to them, and are able to counteract potential negative influences."
It didn't matter if a few of the girls among a girl's close friends were high-risk, as long as most of them were not. In fact, he concluded, that was likely to help the high-risk friends delay the onset of sexual activity and pregnancy.
But, he added, that wasn't true if her close friends included a high-risk boy. "A relaxed approach by a parent regarding a daughter's close set of female friends might well be matched by vigilance concerning her close circle of male friends," Bearman said.
Sun staff writer Jonathan Bor contributed to this article.