Statistics released today about American teens’ sexual behavior belie the popular portrayal of American youth as permissive and careless. New data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that the majority of teens have remained abstinent.

Though the proportion of teens who are sexually experienced has remained relatively unchanged since 2002, the CDC report does note that the percentage represents a significant decline since 1988. And it’s important to note that the proportion of youths who are abstinent has risen by 17 percent among teenage girls and by 47 percent among teenage boys since 1988. Other data sources confirm this finding.

The toll that early sexual activity takes on youths’ physical and emotional well-being and the association of abstinence with greater academic achievement all signal the importance of promoting the upward trend of abstinence through family, community, and public policy.

Although many parents may assume that popular culture and peer influence outweigh the impact of their guidance, numerous studies have documented the impact that parents can have on their children’s sexual behavior. Youths whose parents discuss the consequences of sexual activity and monitor them more closely are less likely to be sexually active, and teens who feel that their parents would strongly disapprove of their becoming sexually active are less likely to contract a sexually transmitted infection.

The new CDC report underscores the parent factor: Teenage girls in intact families are 47 percent less likely to be sexually experienced than peers in stepfamilies and 37 percent less likely than peers in single-parent families. The corresponding figures for teenage boys in intact families are 37 percent and 42 percent.

In addition, community- and school-based programs that promote abstinence have been found to have a significant influence on participants’ behavior. Abstinence education—which informs adolescents of the social, psychological, and health benefits of abstinence—instills decision-making skills with a long-range vision.

Unfortunately, another type of program has dominated school curricula—“comprehensive” sex education, which focuses on “safe” sexual activity rather than abstinence, in spite of parents’ overwhelming preference for the latter. Taxpayers’ funding for comprehensive sex education programs totaled more than $600 million in 2008.

The recent data on teen sexual behavior gives cause for hope for the well-being and future prospects of the next generation. A combination of parental involvement and wise public policy can promote the trend toward youths’ abstinence and can bring that hope into reality.