Study: MTV's '16 and Pregnant' led to fewer teen births

Jacque Wilson | 1/15/2014, 8:36 a.m.
The next time your teen turns on MTV's "16 and Pregnant," avoid any disparaging remarks. The show may actually encourage ...

— The next time your teen turns on MTV's "16 and Pregnant," avoid any disparaging remarks. The show may actually encourage him or her to practice safer sex, according to a new study.

The study, released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research, says "16 and Pregnant" ultimately led to a 5.7% reduction in teen births in the 18 months after its premiere on TV. This would account for about one-third of the overall decline in teen births in the United States during that period, researchers Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine concluded.

In 2011, a total of 329,797 babies were born in the United States to girls between the ages of 15 and 19; that's a rate of 31.3 births per every 1,000 girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC does not have rates available for 2012; Kearney and Levine say that number dropped to 29.4 per every 1,000 that year.

The declining teen birth rate is a well-documented trend in the United States. Between 1991 and 2008, the rate dropped steadily at an average of about 2.5% a year. In the past four years, it has dropped even more dramatically at a rate of about 7.5% per year.

"We were really curious as to what was going on," said Kearney, who has been studying teen pregnancy interventions alongside Levine for more than a decade. When the researchers learned that Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, thought MTV's shows may have something to do with it, they thought: "Could that really be true?"

"16 and Pregnant" premiered in June 2009 and has been on for five seasons, with a total of 47 episodes through October 2013. The show features one teen every episode and follows her through several months during and after pregnancy. The documentary-style show inspired several spinoffs, including the popular "Teen Mom."

Both "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom" have experienced their share of controversy. The shows are often criticized for glamorizing teen pregnancy.

"Instead of really helping viewers understand the day-to-day responsibilities of attending to a new infant -- scrubbing poop stains or spit-up out of clothing -- or dwelling on the 'mundane,' MTV chooses to focus on the girls' volatile relationships with the babies' fathers or their new body piercings and tattoos," Parents Television Council Director Melissa Henson wrote on CNN. "That makes for better TV."

Kearney and Levine looked at Nielsen ratings as well as search data from Google Trends and Twitter to determine the show's potential impact on teen birth rates. They recorded spikes in Google searches and Twitter mentions about the show when new episodes aired and looked specifically for searches on terms such as "birth control" and "abortion" alongside those spikes.

They then analyzed geographic data to see whether locations with higher search activity and tweets about "16 and Pregnant" showed higher levels of searches and tweets about birth control and abortion.

They did.

The researchers also looked to see whether high viewership in certain areas corresponded with a bigger drop in teen births.