In the face of a wall of think pieces on how 16 and Pregnant glamorizes and rewards the life of a teenage mother, a paper presented by the National Bureau of Economic Research argues that the program may have actually prevented thousands of teenage pregnancies.
"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," write co-authors Melissa S. Kearney (University of Maryland) and Phillip B. Levine (Wellesley College) in their NBER paper, titled "Media Influences on Social Outcomes: The Impact of MTV's 16 and Pregnant on Teen Childbearing." That 5.7 reduction, The New York Times explains, is around 20,000 possible births to teenage mothers in 2010.
That is something we weren't expecting. Since the program's start in 2009, MTV has come under a lot of flack for not only exploiting the girls on the show, but also glamorizing teen pregnancy. The gist of all those pieces: teenage girls would want to get pregnant because it would get them on MTV and turn them into celebrities.
And what those pieces might have done is shortchange or underestimate teenage girls. Glamorizing would only work if teenage girls weren't smart enough to see that these young mothers on television were steaming hot messes. Apparently, they deserve a lot more credit than that. The New York Times explains that the areas that were consuming the most 16 and Pregnant saw teen pregnancy rates decline faster than areas that didn't :
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.
What the show's advocates say happened (and the research seems to back up) is that teens were able to see the bigger picture of teen pregnancy, something that typical sex education doesn't provide. It also openly addresses a taboo topic. It led to more teens being informed. "The measured impact on fertility was greatest for black teenagers, who tend to be more likely to have children than their white and Asian counterparts," The Times explains.
To be clear, researchers and the show's advocates aren't saying this show, its sequels, and the national cultural conversation surrounding this show was the only thing that brought down teen pregnancies. They're quick to point out that the teenage birth rate has been steadily declining for the past 20 years — 62 teenage girls out of every 1,000 gave birth in 1991 compared to 29 out of 1,000 in 2012 — and that bigger national trends, like the recession, also drive the birth rate down.
But the show and more education do help. "You can have all the sex-ed you want," Sarah S. Brown, the chief executive of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy told The Times. "But if you can say, ‘Could that happen to me?’ that brings a reality and a heightened connection that is very significant for teenagers."