According to a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, MTV’s popular reality show “16 & Pregnant” and its “Teen Mom” spin-off could actually have an important impact on teens’ sexual behavior. The researchers suggest that the shows’ stark illustration of teenage pregnancy encouraged more teens to seek out information about birth control, and ultimately contributed to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births in the 18 months after the franchise first premiered. Those findings seem encouraging — but their implications for sexual health aren’t so straightforward.
The preliminary study suggests the MTV shows could have helped prevent more than 20,000 births to teenage mothers in 2010. In order to draw that conclusion, researchers analyzed Nielsen ratings, Twitter data, and Google Trends search results to estimate how many teens engaged with the “16 & Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” shows while they aired. They found an increase in teens’ searches related to birth control and abortion during those times. Although the researchers acknowledge that the national teen pregnancy rate began its steady decline before MTV launched its reality shows, they suggest the “16 & Pregnant” franchise played some role in the dramatic drop.
“This is sex education for the 21st century. This is a show that very clearly exemplifies what life is going to be like in the aftermath of having a baby at such a young age,” Phillip Levine, a co-author of the study and an economics professor at Wellesley College, told NBC News. “It’s very hard to convey that message in any other way. You could talk about it in a classroom environment and maybe it could have some impact, but this is much more compelling.”
That’s how MTV typically frames its popular franchise, too. Spokespeople from the network reiterate that “16 & Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” are intended to illustrate the challenging aspects of becoming a teenage parent. During the programming, the network directs viewers to online resources about safe sex.
Mixed opinions on “16 & Pregnant”
MTV isn’t alone in its view that its programming is reaching teens in a helpful way. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unintended Pregnancy has been one of the show’s biggest champions, partnering with MTV back in 2010 to develop “16 & Pregnant” screenings and discussion guides for sex educators across the country. The group has repeatedly reiterated that the show has a positive impact on teens, and spokespeople from the organization told the New York Times that the latest results from the National Bureau of Economic Research are “thrilling.”
Earlier research commissioned by the National Campaign found that adolescent viewers of the show were more likely to initiate conversations about teen pregnancy with parents and friends. And over 80 percent of them said the program helped them better understand the challenges of teen pregnancy and early parenthood.
But “16 & Pregnant” is certainly not without its critics. Some reproductive rights supporters argue the show doesn’t capture the full range of sexual health options because it hardly ever discusses abortion. Socially conservative groups, on the other hand, often criticize MTV for glamorizing teen pregnancy, since its reality shows often make young mothers into celebrities. Some of the young women featured in the show go on to make headlines for using drugs, filming sex tapes, or serving time in prison.
Other advocates point out that it may not be appropriate for the network to put a spotlight on teens in difficult situations as examples of young people who have made the “wrong” decisions.
“Putting young parents before an audience at one of the more vulnerable times in their lives, to specifically serve as a cautionary tale for others, seems unethical to me — especially when the life courses of these young women have likely been shaped more by their celebrity than by their parenthood,” Gretchen Sisson, a a research sociologist with the think tank Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) who focuses on teen pregnancy and parenthood, told ThinkProgress.
The science of studying sex
But those bold conclusions don’t necessarily reflect the fact that the new results should be taken with a grain of salt. The National Bureau of Economic Research hasn’t yet published the study in a peer-reviewed journal, a step that would signal the data and methods have been reviewed thoroughly by the scientific community. And since the research didn’t involve an experimental group and a control group, it didn’t prove causation — although researchers found compelling evidence that “16 & Pregnant” inspired teens to seek out more information about sexual health, they didn’t definitively prove that the show directly led to a drop in pregnancies.
And perhaps more broadly, it’s important to put “16 & Pregnant” in the context of what we already know about how to effectively impact teens’ behavior. There isn’t much scientific evidence that these type of “cautionary tales” are actually effective.
Leslie Kantor, the vice president of education at Planned Parenthood, spearheads the national organization’s efforts to advance sexual health instruction and resources. Over the past year, Planned Parenthood — which is the largest sex ed provider in the country — has conducted extensive research to figure out how to use new media to reach kids in a compelling way. This past fall, Kantor’s team launched a set of online tools that allow teens to use social media to access information about healthy relationships and preventing pregnancy.
“We know a lot about the science about what messages work,” Kantor told ThinkProgress. “In all the work we’re doing in education at Planned Parenthood, we’re trying to use proven theories of behavior change. Those theories show that there are certain kinds of messages that are much more persuasive to people.”
For instance, teens strongly respond to “norms” messages that communicate what other people around them are doing. They want to fit in with their peers. That’s why Planned Parenthood pushes messages like “8 out 10 teens use a condom the first time they have sex” and “Most teens your age are not having sex yet.” Those statistics help communicate to kids that it’s normal to make healthy decisions about becoming sexually active.
“It’s also really important to associate positive emotions with the action that you’re trying to get people to take,” Kantor said. “You want to play on the idea that using birth control and planning for sex makes you smart, it makes you a good partner, it makes your relationship a healthy one. Those are the kind of things we want to tap on. In contrast, quite a bit of research has been done on fear-based approaches. Generally they don’t work at all; occasionally they work in the very short term.”
Another big area of public health concern, teen drug use, illustrates that point. Project D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), which used to be one of the most widely-used substance abuse prevention programs in the country, warned kids that starting to use drugs would ruin their lives — but it’s been proven to be largely ineffective. According to Kantor, some public health researchers have found short-term success with ominous programs intended to dissuade drunk driving. But sexual health researchers haven’t seen any positive results from efforts to scare kids about getting pregnant or contracting an STD.
It’s perhaps unsurprising. After all, one of the most prominent efforts to scare kids out of having sex — abstinence-only education courses that tell kids their mothers will hate them if they take birth control, having sex makes them like a chewed-up piece of gum, and getting an STD always leaves women infertile — has been extremely unsuccessful. Kids don’t believe the scare tactics, and a large body of evidence has discredited the approach.
Addressing the roots of teen pregnancy
Teen pregnancy prevention programs typically walk a fine line between cautionary tales and blaming young women for making bad choices. For instance, a controversial ad campaign in New York City last year was widely criticized for attempting to scare women out of pregnancy with images of crying babies and bleak economic statistics. But punishing, shaming, and stigmatizing young mothers for structural factors that are often out of their control — like poverty and inadequate access to health care — doesn’t do much to address the roots of the issue.
“Why are we so invested in preventing teen pregnancy? Wouldn’t it be better to increase opportunities for all young people, including those that are parenting, and give them better control over their reproductive lives so that they can make choices for themselves?” ANSIRH’s Sisson said.
When the issue is framed as preventing teen pregnancy, it sets up a dichotomy where “good” teens and “bad” teens can be identified by the ones who have given birth. The teens who made a terrible mistake in the eyes of society, like the ones who appear on MTV, are held up as examples of a path that their peers should avoid at all costs. While that fits neatly into society’s idea of age-appropriate parenting, it also has some disastrous consequences for the young women who do end up becoming teen moms.
“Teenage pregnancy is not just a female teen problem, it is a social problem,” Gloria Malone, a teenage mother herself, wrote in RH Reality Check in response to New York’s recent campaign. “I am more than willing to work with anyone who wants to better understand the social, emotional, and educational factors that can lead to teenage pregnancy. What I refuse to do is to keep getting blamed for society’s problems. I refuse to be the scapegoat of elected officials who, rather than doing their job, point fingers at youth for problems that our elders are causing by refusing to acknowledge those problems in the first place.”
That’s the same approach that the United Nations takes. In its most recent report about the state of motherhood around the world, the executive director of the UN Population Fund, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, noted that working to lower the number of teen births is a complicated goal that extends far beyond changing individual girls’ behavior. In reality, it’s actually about changing the behavior of their families, communities, and governments.
“Too often, society blames only the girl for getting pregnant,” Osotimehin wrote. “The reality is that adolescent pregnancy is most often not the result of a deliberate choice, but rather the absence of choices, and of circumstances beyond a girl’s control. It is a consequence of little or no access to school, employment, quality information and health care.”
In that context, “16 & Pregnant” isn’t necessarily an innovative form of sex ed. It’s simply playing into the dynamics that have existed for decades. A truly radical approach to teen pregnancy prevention would involve a re-orientation of the way that society approaches teen sexuality, reproductive health care, and economic policy as a whole.
A bigger conversation about sex and the media
Of course, no one denies that the media can have a powerful impact on society. Drunk driving prevention advocates credit the media for helping to slowly change the culture around alcohol. Television and movies can play a big role in “norms” messaging, the kind of reinforcement that Planned Parenthood’s Kantor referenced as one of the most effective strategies to change behavior.
“We really encourage parents to talk to young people about what they’re seeing in the media,” Kantor told ThinkProgress. “Our educators across the country are able to use popular media to do a lot of teaching. When we have the opportunity, we do speak directly to writers, producers, and directors, and try to get them to cover some of the key issues that are going on in terms of sexual health.”
Planned Parenthood frequently partners with shows that are developing plot lines about teen sex or teen pregnancy to ensure that the writers are incorporating medically accurate information. Pop culture is notorious for failing to include positive examples of people using birth control, but there are some signs that the media has been slowly improving in this area.
Every year, the organization gives out awards in “media excellence” to the movies, TV shows, and journalists who are helping to advance the national conversation about sexual health. Modern Family, Friday Night Lights, Boston Legal, and Law & Order: SVU have all been honored for depicting honest conversations about sex and birth control. Cosmopolitan and Seventeen magazines have also been credited for running stories that deliver important, factual information to their adolescent audience.
It’s certainly not hard to believe that “16 & Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” are doing similar things to expose teens to issues of sexual health, and sparking what can end up being productive conversations, as the National Bureau of Economic Research paper found. But teen pregnancy is a complicated issue. Television-as-birth-control isn’t the magic bullet.