Study Says There’s an Unexpected Impact of MTV’s ’16 and Pregnant’ on Teens

While some would say MTV reality shows like “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” glamorize a difficult situation and could encourage such a lifestyle, a new report suggests just the opposite.

Authors of the report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research investigate how these shows, which portray the lives of teenage mothers through pregnancy and child rearing, could actually have an impact on pregnancy rates around the country.

“Typically, the public concern addresses potential negative influences of media exposure, but this study finds it may have positive influences as well,” the authors said in a statement, according to a University of Maryland news release.

“We use data from Google Trends and Twitter to document changes in searches and tweets resulting from the show, Nielsen ratings data to capture geographic variation in viewership and Vital Statistics birth data to measure changes in teen birth rates,” authors Melissa Kearney with University of Maryland and Phillip Levine with Wellesley College wrote in the paper’s abstract.

16 and pregnant
Image source: University of Maryland

They found that shows like “16 and Pregnant” might have led to more searches and tweets about birth control and abortion, which they correlated with a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births in the year and a half following the show’s airing.

“This accounts for around one-third of the overall decline in teen births in the United States during that period,” the authors wrote.

Now, we should note, some would consider it faulty logic to attribute a decline in teen births to the show. Following the logical fallacy “post hoc ergo propter hoc,” it could be shaky to assume that the show and those like it are the only cause of more tweets about birth control and abortion, and thus that’s the cause of fewer pregnancies.

16 and pregnant
Kristina on “16 and Pregnant” season four has a baby shower. (Image source: MTV)

Kearney gave NPR more details about the research logic:

We started by, of course, using the birthrate data in the U.S. So we’re able to figure out exactly how many teens gave birth in various media markets. And then we bought data from Nielsen — ratings data — to figure out how many teenagers were watching MTV across the country. And then also something a bit novel for economists: We got all historical data on Google searches as well as the universe of Twitter data.

In the Google data we were really looking for … people searching for information about how to get birth control around the time the shows were viewed — and there are really striking spikes in the data. [On the] day that an episode airs and the next day we see large spikes in the rate at which people are searching for how to get birth control and we see higher volumes of searches in places where more teens are watching MTV.

The Twitter data was astounding. In the Twitter data we can actually see what teens are tweeting, and there are literally thousands of tweets that say things like: “Watching 16 and Pregnant reminds me to take my birth control.” [And] “16 and Pregnant is the best form of birth control.” So getting that insight into what teenagers were thinking about while and right after they watched the show was really informative.

“It’s a substantial and an important finding,” Diane Schanzenbach with Northwestern University told The New York Times of the study. But “if they told us this cut the rate in half, I wouldn’t believe it.”

Bill Albert with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy told USA Today that the connection between the show and fewer teen pregnancies is “absolutely plausible.”

“The conventional wisdom is that these shows glamorize teen pregnancy and parenting,” Albert continued. “What we’ve seen in the past, though, is that for teens who watch these shows, the message is more sobering than salacious.”

Parents Television Council’s Melissa Henson, however, told USA Today she’s “a bit skeptical,” thinking that the shows still promote “staged drama” and not “responsible teen sex.”

Let us know your thoughts on shows like “16 and Pregnant” and its potential impact on teen pregnancies by taking our poll.

Featured image via MTV.

(H/T: Smithsonian Magazine)