Does MTV glamorize teen pregnancy?
From the moments the network first aired 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom back in 2009, critics raised this question about the reality programs’ premise and potential. And as the shows’ stars started popping up on celebrity magazine covers, everyone—from bloggers to “parenting experts”—seemed to chime in with an opinion. Many found it careless, exploitative, and overly sensationalized. They criticized the drama, the feuds. They said it wasn’t scary enough. Most of all, though, they hated that these girls “who made a mistake” were getting famous for it—and disparaged the message that this sent to the series’ youngest viewers.
But guess what?
According to a paper released today by The National Bureau of Economic Research, the programs may have had the opposite effect on teens. And I’m not at all surprised.
The study, which compared birth records and Nielsen television ratings, indicates that the shows led to a nearly 6 percent reduction in the teen birth rate, resulting in 20,000 fewer births to teen moms in 2010. This accounts for about one-third of the overall decline in teen births, say the researchers. There’s no denying it—that’s major.
And the research (summarized in the infographic below) also found that social media postings about contraception, as well as Internet searches about the topic, spiked whenever the programs aired. In other words, watching the show made teens hungry for sex ed information. And it made them hungry for it immediately.
So what does this study tell us, aside from the facts above? To put it simply (and to put concerns about the subjects of the show aside for a moment), media matters, and both MTV and its teen viewers are much smarter than many adults like to think. The network has worked closely with The National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy to not only evaluate the show’s messaging and its effect on viewers throughout, but also to provide companion blog posts that give teens important info about safe sex. (Back in 2010, the organization polled young people ages 12-19, finding that 82% thought that 16 and Pregnant helped them better understand the challenges of teen pregnancy and parenthood—and how to avoid it. Yup. They’ve been monitoring this stuff all along. They’ve known it resonates.)
So the next season of Teen Mom 2 premieres January 21—will you be watching with your teens?
More on Sex Ed and Teen Pregnancy from Teenbeing: