THE pregnancy rate among under 18s in Dorset is at a record low, with experts saying sexting and online chats are replacing sexual relationships.

In 1998, when the Office for National Statistics first started compiling conception data by local authority, the pregnancy rate for young women aged between 15 and 17 was 52 per 1,000 in Bournemouth, 43 per 1,000 in Poole and 31 per 1,000 in Dorset county.

In the 12 months up to June 2017, the period covered by the latest statistics, that figure has more than halved to 20 per 1,000 in Bournemouth, 17 per 1,000 in Poole and 13 per 1,000 in Dorset.

Nationally, the England average is now 18 per 1,000, also a record low.

Katherine O’Brien, spokesman for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said cultural changes among young people, such as drinking less and spending more time socialising online, had caused pregnancy rates to plummet.

"Improvements in contraception and better sex education undoubtedly play a role, however we believe some societal shifts are also important factors," she said.

"This is a generation who focus on their academic work much more, they are less likely to go out binge drinking and get involved in activities which can lead to sex.

"They are spending more and more time socialising online, and less time in person with their partners."

A report by the charity found that social, romantic and sexual relationships among younger people are increasingly experienced online, and sexting is seen as an alternative or a precursor to sex.

In total, in the 12 months to June 2017, 47 young women under 18 became pregnant in Bournemouth, 42 in Poole and 89 in Dorset county.

The under 18 conception rate in the conurbation is above the regional average for the South West, which is 15 per 1,000 young women.

Ms O’Brien said pregnancy rates might have been expected to rise given recent cuts to sexual health services, which is why the charity does not credit improved knowledge of contraception as the decisive factor.

"Contraception services have been closing down or reducing their opening hours," she said.

"The sex education curriculum is not fit for purpose and a lot of youngsters are not getting the information about sex they need.

"This is why we think these life and societal factors have brought down the conception rate."