MTV show helped reduce teen pregnancy, say researchers

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MTV

The rate of teen pregnancy in the US has been falling at a rapid rate since 2008. A significant contributing factor is the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant.

The show is about the trials and tribulations of teen pregnancy. It also happens to be a great reality check for the problems faced by teen pregnancy and raising a child as a young person.

Melissa S. Kearney of the University of Maryland and Phillip B. Levine of Wellsely College determined that both searches for and tweets about birth control and abortion rose due to the television show. More surprising is that the show helped to reduce teens giving births by 5.7% eighteen months after its debut.

The findings were published in a paper titled Media Influences on Social Outcomes: The Impact of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant on Teen Childbearing. Roughly one-third of the overall decline in teen pregnancies can be attributed to the show, say the researchers. Half of the cut is due to the recession and the rest is a part of a continuing overall downward trend.

“The finding that 16 and Pregnant 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,” conclude the researchers.

“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.”

The findings come as little surprise to the international health field. Utilizing mass media to target health information and behavior change dates back more than two decades. A radio soap opera aired in St Lucia in the mid-1990s used compelling stories to inform listeners about HIV prevention, family planning and more. Research on the program found the obvious, shows must be able to compete with their less socially-minded counterparts.

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Campaigners, led recently by Melinda Gates, have sought public support for the 220 million women who do not have access to adequate family planning. Like the girls on the show, millions of unintended pregnancies occur around the world each year. Advocates argue that more must be done to ensure that women have the ability to control when they get pregnant, especially in cases where the mother is young. Media campaigns have been one of the ways that the effort is being carried out.

In the US, the Center for Disease Control championed the ability of the shows ER and Grey’s Anatomy to educate Americans with valuable health prevention information. Heart disease and obesity, were targeted in a May 2004 episode of ER. Carrying 24.8 million viewers, the show reached a much wider audience than the CDC could have done on its own.

“Knowing that 88 percent of people in America learn about health issues from television, CDC believes that prime time and daytime television programs, movies, talk shows and more, are great outlets for our health messages,” said the CDC in 2007.

MTV, the cable television channel that ushered in an era of music videos, Carson Daly, Jenny McCarthy and the groundbreaking reality show, The Real World, has transformed into a full blown reality TV network in less than a decade. Trashy dating shows and Jersey shore beefcakes fill the airtime, providing ample opportunity for producers to throw ideas against the wall and see what might stick.

The show 16 and Pregnant debuted in 2009, was a sort of counter point to the opulence of My Sweet 16. Viewers learned the stories of average high school girls who happened to also be nearing the end of pregnancy. Tough decisions about what to do with the child, complicated relationships with the father of the child and a wide range of support from parents contribute to the difficulties of the pregnancy. A pair of spin-off shows, Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2, followed some of the girls as they navigated life as a young and sometimes single mother.

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The idea for the research was sparked by a comment from Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. She suggested that the show contributed to the quick decline in teen pregnancies across the US. Both economists, Kearney and Levine say that they wanted to prove whether or not a television show can have a behavioral impact on teens.

“In some circles, the idea that teenagers respond to media content is a foregone conclusion, but determining whether the media images themselves cause the behavior is a very difficult empirical task,” said Professor Kearney.

Kearny and Levine tracked how young people were responding to watching the show by searching Twitter and Google searches.

“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,” said Kearny to NPR’s All Things Considered.

The strength of the show appears to be its ability to initially appeal to the right audience. Teens find the shows about pregnant peers to be compelling and then learn about the problems that can emerge from getting pregnant too young.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.