Two recently released independent studies appear to demonstrate that reality shows like 16 and Pregnant, that are supposed to lift the lid on what it’s like to be teenage parents, may affect views on teenage parenting and even drive down teenage pregnancy rates. Is this research legitimate, and how does it inform to debate about sex education?
A new study of Nielsen television ratings and birth records was released this week and it suggests that the MTV show 16 and Pregnant and its spin-offs Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2 may be responsible for a drop in birth rates among teenage viewers that adds up to about 20,000 births.
These programs have been highly controversial as some accuse them of glorifying teen pregnancy and making celebrities out of teenage mothers which in turn gives a false impression about the realities of young motherhood.
The study, conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, doesn’t directly argue against that, but it does say that by comparing viewing figures for the MTV show and the decline in birth rates, they can say that there is a correlation and that these programs might be acting as a kind of “cautionary tale” for the show’s viewers. Says the paper’s summary:
We find that 16 and Pregnant led to more searches and tweets regarding birth control and abortion, and ultimately led to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births in the 18 months following its introduction. This accounts for around one-third of the overall decline in teen births in the United States during that period.
Some have welcomed these findings as confirmation of the power of the media. However, this study has received a fair amount of criticism online — though, usually from people who are rallying against the shows and not the study itself — because it appears to make some quite broad assumptions about viewership and, for instance, takes for granted a correlation between social media and Internet behavior and a reduction in birth rates.
There are wider concerns about how one accurately controls for the very complex interplay of variables that are at work here. Lacking the expertise into reading this kind of study, it would be improper for me to give my uninformed opinions, yet this analysis by someone with more experience in the field explains how the researchers were able to come to the conclusions they did and the merits of those conclusions.
Briefly, the research poses some interesting questions and does demonstrate a correlation between watching 16 and Pregnant and a drop in birth rates, but that correlation probably isn’t as strong as the research might suggest and further investigations will be needed to address the study’s limitations.
Released in the same week comes another study, this time by researchers at the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington, and the University of Utah, that found that “heavy viewers” of MTV reality TV series like Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2 do appear to have unrealistic views about life as a teenage parent.
During the study the researchers asked 185 high school students (aged 14 to 18) about their perceptions of reality TV and teen pregnancy. What they found was that on the whole viewers of the program — both male and female — were more likely to view teenage pregnancy more positively than the reality of the situation, which for most teenagers involves poverty and extreme emotional and physical stress.
To put this in concrete terms, regular viewers of the programs also tended to believe that teen moms were able to easily access affordable health care, that they finished college and that they would later have enough money live on their own.
The researchers weren’t allowed to ask about sexual behavior among the participants, but they also hypothesize that this kind of skewed view might lead teenage viewers to engage in unsafe sex because the perceived consequences these shows depict aren’t all that bad and are in fact quite glamorous.
Again, this study has some quite significant limitations, but that’s to be expected. The sample size is small and, while still significant, the correlation between unrealistic opinions and viewership isn’t overwhelming. Nevertheless, it is interesting and does suggest that shows like Teen Mom might be misleading teenagers.
Reports on the study yet again appear to have divided between those who think the show is a good thing and those who do not, with little care for what the study actually says or its context.
There’s something that appears to have been absent from this discussion though: the fact that in some states in America 16 and Pregnant may be the closest thing that teens have to sex education and information on teen pregnancy. That, quite frankly, is ridiculous.
As interesting as these studies might be, and as distasteful as some of these so-called reality TV shows have become, let’s not get distracted from the fact that there are states that ban schools from talking about anything other than abstinence. If teenagers are gleaning ridiculous notions of teen parenting from these shows it is because they haven’t been given the information that would challenge these false images.
Regardless of the undeniably strong power of television, some of that blame has to stand with lawmakers, officials, political groups and individual parents who refuse to allow sex education into classrooms and attempt to block funding for teen and women’s health clinics. Let’s not forget that fact as we squabble about the scourge of television’s unreal take on life and its possible harms or, for that matter, benefits.
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