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 ...

— It did.

"The results of our analysis indicate that exposure to '16 and Pregnant' was high and that it had an influence on teens' thinking regarding birth control and abortion," the researchers write.

That's all well and scientific, but could a TV show really have that big of an impact on teen birth rates?

"It's an extraordinary study done by two very cautious economists," said Bill Albert, chief program officer at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "I jokingly refer to them as Drs. No because they generally set out to say, 'That doesn't work.' For that reason alone, we take it very seriously."

Kearney said that while she and Levine did a lot of "fancy economic work" to make sure their conclusion was right, the most compelling evidence came from the teens' social media language. "The text of the tweets are phenomenal: 'This reminds me to take my birth control.' 'Watching 16 & Pregnant, going to take my birth control,' " she remembered reading.

Of course, no one, including the study authors, is saying that MTV alone is responsible for the declining teen birth rate.

About half of the recent dramatic decline can be attributed to the recession, Kearney says. Research shows that all birth rates fall during slow economic times, including teens'; those who were once ambivalent about using birth control often become more conscientious when they realize that finding -- or keeping -- a job to support a baby would be difficult.

Kearney believes TV shows like "16 and Pregnant" work to deter teens in a similar way.

"Shows that make it clear how hard it can be ... affect girls who might not care otherwise," she said. "You see she's fighting with her boyfriend on a daily basis. She's gaining weight. Her friends are partying without her."

Making the immediate cost clear seems to get through to teens more than statistics that show what happens to teen parents when they're 25, Kearney says.

Teens may turn to TV shows about sex because they're lacking other options, Albert says. A recent study published in the medical journal JAMA showed that doctors certainly aren't spending a lot of time talking about the important topic: The average conversation about sex between doctors and teens in the study lasted less than two minutes.

And parents, Albert says, are often shocked to learn that teens say their parents have a major influence on their decisions about sex.

"I think the takeaway here is that media can be, and often is, a force for good," Albert said. "We have always viewed these particular shows as sex education for the 21st century."

CNN's Stephanie Smith contributed to this story.