Watching MTV’s ’16 and Pregnant’ leads to lower teen birth rates, study finds

BY Ellen Rolfes  January 13, 2014 at 5:57 PM EST
Photo by Geoff Manasse via Getty Images

The U.S. teen birth rate declined between 2008 and 2011. While the Great Recession is considered to be the biggest player in the drop, a new study finds that MTV’s “16 & Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” also had significant impacts on the drop in teen birth rates. Photo by Geoff Manasse via Getty Images

Calling all aspiring teenage reality TV stars: Have a baby and you could be featured on MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” or “Teen Mom.” And your chances are getting better because the pool of eligible teenage parents for the shows is declining — and it may be a result of the show’s popularity.

One reason fewer teens are having children before they turn 20 is because they are watching reality-based programming on MTV, according to a new study.

“People are saying, ’16 and Pregnant is the best form of birth control,’” study co-author and Wellesley College economist Phillip B. Levine said. “You can look at the tweets.”

Levine and his co-author, economist Melissa Schettini Kearney of the University of Maryland, combined Nielsen ratings — which measure the audience size and composition of “16 and Pregnant” and track show popularity — and teenagers’ responses with Google Trends data and Twitter data, analyzed by Topsy.

The overall teen birth rate fell 7.5 percent per year between 2009 and 2012, falling to 29.4 births per 1,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19, from 40.2 births per 1,000. The researchers found that 5.7 percent of the decrease was due to teens watching and talking about these shows in the 18 months following their premiere. Their findings were published by the National Bureau of Economic Research on Monday.

The study’s most significant finding was evidence that some teenagers not only changed their thoughts on teen pregnancy, they also changed their behavior — after “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” went on air, there was a sharp decline of teens giving birth in locations where the show was more widely viewed than compared to the national trend. “The timing of the introduction of MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” is such that it might conceivably have contributed in some measure to the most recent, very sharp decline,” the authors wrote in the report.

“It is possible for the media to have an impact on an individual,” Levine said. In this case he said it was a positive impact. They found that in states where “16 and Pregnant” aired, searches related to birth control and abortion increased after the show premiered in June, 2009.

Slate contributor Jessica Grose is more critical. She argued there are other studies that contradict Levine and Kearney’s conclusions, such as one that found heavy viewers of “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant” had unrealistic views of teen pregnancy.

The full study: “Media Influences on Social Outcomes: The Impact of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant on Teen Childbearing.”

This post has been updated to reflect the following correction. Between 2009 and 2012, the teen birth rate fell to to 29.4 births per 1,000, or 2.94 percent, from 40.2 births per 1,000, or 4.02 percent. The original version stated that these figures were 29 percent and 40 percent, respectively.