Despite concerns that turning teen moms into reality TV stars has glamorized teen pregnancy, a new study shows that MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom led to a 5.7% reduction in teen births. That’s about one-third of the overall decline in teen births in the year and a half following the show’s introduction in 2009. And it did it not by encouraging abortion but by changing teens’ views about pregnancy.
The study, by Wellesley College economist Phillip B. Levine and University of Maryland economist Melissa S. Kearney, was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The U.S. teen birth rate ranks high among developed countries, although it has been declining dramatically over the past 20 years and is now at a historic low. In particular, the U.S. teen birth rate fell rapidly between 2008 and 2012.
In an earlier study, the researchers showed that the Great Recession played the biggest role, explaining more than half of the staggering drop in the most recent, sharp decline. However, they also theorized that the timing of the introduction of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant could have contributed to the staggering drop in teen birth rates.
Did the show influence teens’ interest in contraceptive use or abortion, and did it ultimately change teen childbearing?
Kearney and Levine show that 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom have a large and highly engaged following, win ratings wars, and lead teens to search for and tweet about the themes within. They also find that searches and tweets about birth control and abortion spike exactly when the show is on and in locations where it is more popular.
“Our use of data from Google Trends and Twitter enable us to provide some gauge of what viewers are thinking about when they watch the show,” Levine said.
Although data limitations precluded Kearney and Levine from conducting separate analyses of abortions, the researchers note that teen abortion rates also fell over this period—suggesting that the shows’ impact is likely attributable to a reduction in pregnancy rather than greater use of abortion.
According to the authors, the finding that 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom had an impact suggests that MTV drew in teens who actually were at risk of teen childbearing and conveyed to them information that led them to change their behavior, preventing them from giving birth at such a young age. “The fact that MTV knows how to make shows that teens like to watch, which speak to them in ways that resonate, presumably is critical to the show’s impact,” they said.
“This approach has the potential to yield large results with important social consequences,” concluded Kearney and Levine. “Typically, the public concern addresses potential negative influences of media exposure, but this study finds it may have positive influences as well.”
“When we developed ’16 and Pregnant,’ teen birth rates were reported to be on the rise, so we created this series as a cautionary tale on the hard realities of teen pregnancy. We are deeply grateful to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy for their expert guidance,” said Stephen Friedman, President of MTV. “We’ve always believed that storytelling can be a powerful catalyst for change, and are incredibly heartened by this news.”
“The entertainment media can be, and often is, a force for good,” said Sarah Brown, CEO of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “One of the nation’s great success stories of the past two decades has been the historic declines in teen pregnancy. MTV and other media outlets have undoubtedly increased attention to the risks and reality of teen pregnancy and parenthood and, as this research shows, have likely played a role in the nation’s remarkable progress.”
Unlike Planned Parenthood, the National Campaign isn’t in the business of selling abortions. But it does actively promote the use of artificial methods of contraception. And its board and advisory committees have a handful of Planned Parenthood representatives — as well as a Catholic sister and a Catholic priest.
What we didn’t see in scooting around its website was any indication that the National Campaign is aware of the extraordinary success of the Billings and Creighton methods. Whether that is because it knows — and doesn’t want to tell — isn’t clear.
What is clear, however, is that fewer teen pregnancies means fewer lives ruined by abortion. It’s also clear that the media can be an effective means of spreading a countercultural message. The question is, who will step up to insure that NFP gets equal billing with the less-effective artificial contraception methods?