Forget sex ed: Reality TV may hold the key to curbing teen pregnancy

A new study argues that MTV's 16 and Pregnant prevented 20,000 teenage births in 2010

Not everybody thinks the hit MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant and its follow-up Teen Mom offshoots are a good idea. When the original show came out in 2009, the conservative Media Research Center groused that, with only 40 percent of teenage mothers graduating high school and 66 percent of the families they start in poverty, MTV decided to show "how cool teen pregnancy is with a new reality series."

Some of the teen moms featured in the series have become tabloid stars and one of them, Farrah Abraham, even gained notoriety for making a professionally produced sex tape. Cautionary tales, sure, but maybe not the right kind. 16 and Pregnant "should have been named Pretty, Popular, and Pregnant," quipped the MRC's Sarah Knoploh.

Each episode of 16 and Pregnant follows a teen mom through her final weeks of pregnancy, the birth of her child, and the weeks or months that follow. The Teen Mom spin-offs check in on the teenage moms and their kids. The shows' "depiction of both joy and hardship is unflinching, with angry parents, medical complications, lost sleep, financial difficulties, and fights with absentee boyfriends," says Annie Lowrey at The New York Times.

And that's the point of the show, according to series creator Lauren Dolgen: To tell "the honest, unpleasant truth of teen pregnancy in America — the whole truth." Dolgen adds that she believes "our audience is smart enough to view Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant as the shows were intended — as cautionary tales about the consequences of unprotected sex, and the reality of becoming a parent too early."

But it's not just socially conservative advocacy groups that think Dolgen might be overestimating her audience. A new study from Indiana University, to be released in the journal Mass Communication and Society, found that the show's heaviest viewers actually came away with the opposite impression of teen pregnancy.

"Heavy viewers of teen mom reality programs were more likely to think that teen moms have a lot of time to themselves, can easily find child care so that they can go to work or school, and can complete high school than were lighter viewers of such shows," write Indiana's Nicole Martins and Robin Jensen at the University of Utah, both assistant professors of communication.

All studies have their shortcomings, and Martins and Jensen couldn't ask their 185 high school students perhaps the most germane question: Did watching the show change their sexual behavior? Still, "the fact that teens in the study seemed to think that being a teen parent was easy might increase the likelihood that they'll engage in unsafe sexual practices," Martins says, "because that's not a real consequence to them."

A 2011 analysis of 16 and Pregnant, by American University communications masters candidate Tiffany Brewer, offered a more nuanced conclusion: "Whether or not the show itself glamorizes teen pregnancy is yet to be determined, but the 16 and Pregnant series, coupled with adult discussion, shows promise in educating teenagers about some of the realities of teen pregnancy and motherhood." As a piece of information entertainment, she adds, 16 and Pregnant "may provide a unique opportunity to open the eyes of teenagers and create a more engaging environment for learning."

The newest piece of research on 16 and Pregnant, released Monday by two economists at the National Bureau of Economic Research, purports to answer the key question about the show: Regardless of what viewers think of teen pregnancy, they're not getting pregnant as much. In 2010, the researchers found, 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom reduced the teenage pregnancy rate by almost six percent, or 20,000 births.

Melissa Kearney, the director of Washington research group the Hamilton Project, and Phillip Levine at Wellesley College reached their conclusion by studying Nielsen TV ratings and birth records. They found that in areas where teenagers watched a lot of MTV, the teenage birth rate fell notably faster than in areas where MTV wasn't so popular. They didn't single out how many people were watching 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom specifically, but they focused on the period after the series launched, and the shows were among MTV's most-viewed programs.

"The assumption we're making is that there's no reason to think that places where more people are watching more MTV in June 2009, would start seeing an excess rate of decline in the teen birthrate, but for the change in what they were watching," Levine tells The New York Times. He and Kearney also examined social-media activity and Google searches, finding a sharp jump in postings and searches about contraception whenever the shows aired.

In other words, a reality TV show is succeeding where some sex-ed classes, abstinence-only courses, and parental sit-downs (or lack thereof) to talk about sex are failing. It appears to be pushing teens to teach themselves about birth control. And, suggests Harvard poverty researcher Kathryn Edin, it's puncturing the "don't ask, don't tell" norm between teenage couples — it prompts them to talk about sex, and their expectations about the future.

"You can have all the sex-ed you want," Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, tells The New York Times, "but if you can say, 'Could that happen to me?' That brings a reality and a heightened connection that is very significant for teenagers."

It's perhaps worth noting that Brown's organization was one of MTV's partners in developing 16 and Pregnant, so she might have an interest in the show being seen as reducing teen pregnancies.

But it makes sense that, especially in the 37 states that require sex ed to include abstinence promotion (25 of which require that abstinence be stressed) and among black teenagers (who have children at higher rates than their white and Asian peers), students are more likely to get accessible information about teen pregnancy from the television. And MTV is as likely a source as any.


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