The 16 and Pregnant Paradox: Warning or Endorsement?

Two new studies on teen-mom programming suggest the shows reduce teen births but glorify early parenthood. 

There comes a point in nearly every episode of 16 and Pregnant, the MTV reality show, in which the main character’s sweet anticipation about her upcoming birth gives way to teary discontent that her teenaged boyfriend is not spending as much time on baby preparations, work, or Lamaze classes as he is on “hanging with his boys.”

“With Josh starting to second-guess our marriage plans now that I’m pregnant, I’m starting to wish we had been more careful,” one of the young women, Ebony Jackson-Rendon, says on the show.

In one typical episode, 17-year-old Amber Portwood needles her boyfriend, Gary, to stop buying video games with their dwindling cash.

An exasperated Gary eventually retorts, “Gary time! I need some Gary time!”

Portwood later served jail time for domestic violence and drugs.

It appears that such meltdowns scared the show’s viewers into stocking up on condoms and birth control pills. A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research argues that the program has reduced the teen birthrate by 5.7 percent in the 18 months after it was first introduced, accounting for about a third of the overall decline in the birthrate during that time.

The New York Times writes:

[NBER researchers] Ms. Kearney and Mr. Levine examined birth records and Nielsen television ratings, finding that the rate of teenage pregnancy declined faster in areas where teenagers were watching more MTV programming — not only the “16 and Pregnant” series — than in areas where they did not. The study focuses on the period after “16 and Pregnant” was introduced in 2009 and accounts for the fact that teenagers who tuned in to the show might have been at higher risk of having a child to begin with.

Kearney and Levine found that Internet searches and tweets about birth control and abortion spiked when new episodes aired. As an important caveat, though, the authors can’t prove that individual teens changed their minds about unprotected sex after watching the show.

Still, they praised the show’s beneficial overall effect.

“The fact that MTV knows how to make shows that teens like to watch, which speak to them in ways that resonate, presumably is critical to the show’s impact,” they wrote. “Apparently, this approach has the potential to yield large results with important social consequences.”

But not all of the show’s fans see the downsides of early parenthood quite so clearly.

The show and its follow-ups, Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2, do an honest job of depicting the gritty side of teen pregnancy, zooming in on the family squabbles, derailed dreams, and called-off engagements. But they also have a tendency to glorify their stars, paying them $60,000 and rocketing them to celebrity-magazine fame.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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