In the years following the economic recession, teen birth rates have hit a record low, with fewer than 30 in 1,000 young women giving birth in 2012, compared to more than twice that in 1991. And according to data from a study released today by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the popular MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant and its spinoff, Teen Mom may have contributed to the trend by preventing more than 20,000 births to teen mothers in 2010. That translates to a nearly 6 percent reduction in teen births during the 18-month period after 16 and Pregnant first aired in 2009.
The study’s researchers looked at birth records and Nielsen television ratings data and found teen pregnancy rates in 2010 declined faster in areas where teens were watching the most MTV programming — which includes but isn’t exclusive to the 16 and Pregnant franchise. The researchers reported viewership rates correlated with more Internet searches and tweets about contraception and abortion. Or watching The Situation on Jersey Shore makes teens ovaries stop working. That is also a possibility.
One of the study’s researchers, Phillip B. Levine, tells the New York Times: “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.”
16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom are among MTV’s most popular shows, and can net several millions of viewers per episode. The two series profile teenage girls over the course of their pregnancies, and, later on, as they enter motherhood. Advocates have lauded the shows as effective public service campaigns to prevent teen pregnancy by shedding light on the less-than-rosy realities of being a pregnant teen, including financial troubles and fraught relationships with parents and often-absent significant others.
But the shows haven’t been without controversy. Critics have argued they provide at-risk viewers with a dangerously misconstrued picture of teen pregnancy and motherhood, and point to glamorized breakout stars like Farrah Abraham and Jenelle Evans, who have made repeat tabloid appearances for a sex tape and drug abuse, respectively. And other recent research completely contradicts the NBER report, suggesting “heavy viewers” of the franchise are led to believe that “teen mothers have an enviable quality of life, a high income and involved fathers.”