a single mother

Hey, ’16 And Pregnant’ Haters: The Show Is Actually Making Teen Pregnancy Rates Go Down

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My long-running obsession with the MTV shows 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom has been vindicated! Sort of. New research indicates that the shows may have been at least partially responsible for a 6% drop in the teen pregnancy rate in 2010. Can I say that I hope condoms are also a big part of the drop?

According to the New York Times, a research paper to be released today:

 …by the National Bureau of Economic Research, makes the case that the controversial but popular programs reduced the teenage birthrate by nearly 6 percent, contributing to a long-term decline that accelerated during the recession.

“It’s thrilling,” said Sarah S. Brown, the chief executive of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a nonprofit group in Washington. “People just don’t understand how influential media is in the lives of young people.”

That’s right. Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant, as much as I love to watch them—I don’t know why I love to watch them,  I’m aware of the problems of their representation but I still watch— apparently have value that goes beyond that of just entertainment. These shows about the actual hardships and struggles of teenage parents have seemingly made a difference, at least according to the study’s authors. The study in question looked at both Nielsen television ratings and birth records, finding that the rate of teenage births declined more in areas where teens where watching MTV than in areas where they were not. Philip B. Levine of Wellesley College, said:

“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.”

The economists who authored the study also found that tweets, statuses and other social media postings about contraception (as well as search engine traffic) spiked during airings of the shows.

Of course, there are still those who think that the reality shows attempt to show teen pregnancy as “cool.” I never understood why hand-wringers would rage about Teen Mom glamorizing teen pregnancy. I mean, did they ever even watch the show? It’s an endless parade of money struggles, family conflicts, crying babies and sketchy romantic entanglements. And that’s what actually makes it into the show! I’m sure there’s much more to the stories that doesn’t get put on television, including some positive moments. Yes, some of the young mothers get endorsement deals, publicity, and tabloid covers…but that doesn’t mean that teenage girls are running out and getting pregnant because they think they’ll get a shot at being on MTV. Still, I’d argue that the 15 minutes of fleeting fame/adoration that comes from being on a reality show does not cancel out the enormous upheaval that comes along with being a teen mother.

I’m not saying that all teenage mothers have the same experiences as the girls on the MTV reality show, but I feel like watching even a few minutes of an episode would be a pretty harsh deterrent for any teen. From Maci and Ryan‘s horrible breakup and custody battle on Teen Mom, to the staggering assholery of Chelsea‘s boyfriend Adam on Teen Mom 2 to the drama of Leah and Cory and oh god, the trainwecks of Jennelle and Farrah, the show makes it clear that bringing a baby into your life is anything but easy.

Others say that the show exploits teen moms, which is a valid point. Although I think it’s interesting that the study has found the correlation between the shows and the teen birth rate, touting the shows as the perfect “cautionary tale” also seems kind of problematic to me. While I’m glad, for both women and families, that the teen birth rate is going down, I’d hope it’s doing so due to a combination of education and safe sex, rather than just the affects of two television shows.

Photo: Getty Images


  1. Sheila Lopez

    January 13, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    The study seems flawed to me. Other than pure conjecture, there’s no proof that teen pregnancy went down as a result of those shows. They say there’s no reason to think that it would be anything else, but it very well could be anything everything else. Better access to contraceptives, more people jumping on the ‘purity ring’ bandwagon, who knows? It’s the perfect example of specious reasoning.

    • Kay_Sue

      January 13, 2014 at 4:49 pm

      They did control for other variables, the study and its methodology has been peer-reviewed and found sound, and the actual results were that they compared the teen pregnancy rates for different areas to the Nielsen ratings for MTV’s shows, and found that, while teen pregnancy rates declined overall, the areas with strong viewership of the shows declined faster than areas without strong viewership.

      I will be interested to see the whole study when it comes out Monday. It does seem like a stretch, but who knows? I also doubt that it was really that statistically relevant, but there’s no way to know until we see the report itself.

    • Sara610

      January 13, 2014 at 5:05 pm

      I had that reaction upon reading the article, too–I’m reserving judgment until I see the actual study. I have some questions about the methodology, but the peer-review process tends to be pretty rigorous so that counts for something in my book. It’s not like a bunch of yahoos just got together in a room and said, “Hey, lots of kids are watching MTV and teen pregnancy rates also went down! Bam–correlation equals causation, amirite?” and then barfed out a paper all over the New York Times.

      Speaking strictly anecdotally, I do think that seeing the actual reality of being a teen parent tends to do away with the view that having a baby is all fun and dressing it up in cute outfits and taking it to Starbucks. I used to teach high school in an area with a particularly high rate of teen pregnancy, and one of my students–a 15-year-old–had a particularly difficult pregnancy. By the time she delivered, I’d overheard several of my other students talking about how watching her go through that was the best form of birth control ever.

    • Jem

      January 13, 2014 at 6:55 pm

      The study only focused on the show 16 and Pregnant, which DOES show young girls who are usually broke and struggling to care for their babies. (anyone remember Jenelle saying it is exactly like being in prison?) I can imagine why this would discourage girls from having kids.

      However another recent study said that the show Teen Mom actually gives teen girls unrealistic ideas about what having a baby is like, (that you can live in a huge house and not work) and is more likely to encouraged them to have their own.

  2. EmmaFromÉire

    January 13, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    Having a kid is literally the last thing I would want after watching 16 and pregnant. Not even kidding, I can feel my vagina closing up watching the girls dither on about their useless boyfriends and how they’re ‘sure’ he’ll help.

    • arrow2010

      January 13, 2014 at 5:01 pm

      Would you like a BIG ASS TACO with your order of BIG ASS FRIES?

    • EmmaFromÉire

      January 13, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    • arrow2010

      January 13, 2014 at 5:24 pm

      Surprised you didn’t get the movie reference. Oh well.

    • EmmaFromÉire

      January 13, 2014 at 5:35 pm

      Sadly not ringing any bells with me! What film is it?

    • arrow2010

      January 13, 2014 at 6:15 pm


  3. Bethany Ramos

    January 13, 2014 at 4:49 pm

    I love Teen Mom and am not ashamed to say it! I would say that Amber’s jail time doesn’t really glamorize any of it. Some of those girls have pretty messed up circumstances.

  4. arrow2010

    January 13, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    Any actual real evidence of this?

    • matt30fl

      January 13, 2014 at 11:26 pm

      No, but about the time the show came out I switched the brand of shoe I wore to work, so by the same rigid research standards assumed here that caused the teen pregnancy rate to drop.

    • Sara610

      January 14, 2014 at 6:47 am

      Wow, you authored a study about your switch of work shoe that went through the process of peer review before publication? Because that’s what the authors of this particular study did, so unless you did the same it’s really a pretty useless comparison. One author is an associate professor of economics at the University of Maryland and the other is a full professor of economics at Wellesley and a research associate at several different government agencies. Not to mention that the peer-review process itself is built into the system to avoid–to the extent possible–capricious or otherwise baseless studies from getting published. And finally, anyone who reaches that level of professional accomplishment in a research-heavy field like economics is unlikely to risk the potentially career-ending embarrassment of publishing a study that’s found to be based on faulty methodology.

      Don’t get me wrong, I have some questions about this study–for one thing, I haven’t been able to find any info about exactly how large their data sample was–but it’s a misrepresentation to say that they just said, “Hey, during the period that these shows were on MTV the teen birth rate dropped, so obviously correlation equals causation” and then barfed out a paper based solely on that and with no further oversight or review by the larger scholarly community.

    • matt30fl

      January 14, 2014 at 11:09 pm

      My issue is that peer review is about verifying they used a consistent process, not that the results are valid, and the review is done by those who will also be subject to the same review process. The problem with social science studies is they tend to be “soft” science and are always better with macro trends, not one specific variable being identifiable. To truly state the show was a cause of behavior change would require literally millions of other variables be controlled and substantial sample sizes over all geographic, ethnic, family, religious, cutlural, and economic backgrounds while controlling for any other variables that could impact the risk aversion to teen pregnancy. It would then require a second equally expansive control group matching the same characteristics, but who didn’t know anything about the show. It would still honest answers from teenagers.

      This smacks of a study that was offered with this tag about the show to garner media attention for those who conducted it. In that case the study accomplished what it probably set out to do. It wasn’t targeted to academia, who don’t care about MTV programming as a major scientific field of study. It wasn’t targeted to the target audience of the show who would think peer review means it was reviewed just before someone got on a ship. That just leaves headline grabbing.

  5. Emil

    January 13, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    I’m embarrassed to admit it but I love this show. I think because it puts all my parenting “problems” into perspective. I like to imagine myself in a spin-off called 37 and pregnant where I have a fit because my home renovations aren’t going to be done in time for the baby and I can’t get my toddler in the most highly ranked preschool.

    • Kate

      May 20, 2014 at 2:09 pm

      I love this show too! This is my first pregnancy and whenever I get freaked out about raising a child, I turn on Teen Mom. Within 15 minutes, I’m all, “Well, sh*t, I’m going to be FINE”

  6. Muggle

    January 13, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    I’ve long suspected that the people who worried about Teen Mom/16 and Pregnant glamorizing teen pregnancy were the same types who promoted abstinence-only education, who clutch their pearls at any mention of teens breaking any rules on TV.

    I’ve seen the shows. I knew teen moms in real-life. I have my beef with the show and its creative editing, but for the most part… yeah, it’s actually fairly realistic and a very good deterrent.

    • Andrea

      January 13, 2014 at 7:02 pm

      I am actually VERY surprised at those results. I have always believed that those show glamorized teen pregnancy. Because I can see teens girls being all “I’ll be famous!”. And no I don’t promote abstinence only sex ed.
      I guess I was wrong, and that’s fine. I still won’t be watching though.

    • Muggle

      January 13, 2014 at 9:30 pm

      How is it glamorizing teen pregnancy, exactly? I’ve never seen it that way. Other than the fact that those of you who believe that really think teenagers are complete morons who’ll try out anything to be on TV. It’s pretty much constant crying, fighting with the fathers/grandparents, and money troubles. Doesn’t look fun to me, didn’t when I was a teenager when it first came out, doubt it looks fun to anyone else. I think it’s just the fact that we have actual pregnant teenagers on TV and nobody looks past that.

    • Andrea

      January 13, 2014 at 9:50 pm

      We already know that there are more than a few adults (lots really) that do just about anything to get on TV. I can totally see for a teen (who are already not good at seeing long term consequences) seeing a pregnancy as a way to be on MTV. They won’t see the crap, they just see that those girls are “famous”. For a lot of teens (specially in a low SES) it can be seen as glamorous and fun.

    • Muggle

      January 13, 2014 at 10:27 pm

      My town is pretty low-income and NOBODY thought it looked fun and glamorous. To be honest I don’t think there are that many more teens willing to be on reality TV, no matter the cost, than adults. Teens do see how crappy it can be on the show.

    • elle

      January 13, 2014 at 10:57 pm

      Yeah, I tend to agree. Definitely not an abstinence only proponent at all, but I have always felt that Teen Mom (not necessarily 16 and pregnant) glamourizes teen pregnancy. Those girls get A LOT of money per episode, constantly on tabloid covers,on gossip blogs -all the stuff that fame hungry people want. I’m also glad that I’m wrong but it still doesn’t change the bad taste Teen Mom leaves in my mouth. I also can’t stress enough that I very specifically am referring to Teen Mom series and not 16 and pregnant.

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