The U.S. teen birth rate — one of the highest in the developed world — has been dropping in recent years. There are a number of reasons for the decrease, and a new study attributes a portion of the decline to an unlikely cause: MTV’s 16 and Pregnant, a show that takes a brutally honest look at what life is like for pregnant teens.
Melissa Kearney, an associate professor of economics at the University of Maryland, walks NPR’s Audie Cornish through the findings.
On the acceleration in the decrease in teen birth rates around 2008
A lot of people noticed that the decline accelerated and, as you said, it started dropping very rapidly. My colleague and I would read in the newspaper various theories as to why, and everybody promoting their favorite policy being expanded — sex education or expanded abstinence programs — and based on our previous research we knew that those types of targeted policies could not be the explanation.
Then we came across a quote by [CEO] Sarah Brown at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and she speculated that this show was having an effect. So we wondered if that could be true, and we set out to look at the data and see, in fact, if it was.
On the data sets they explored to answer this question
We started by, of course, using the birth rate data in the U.S. So we’re able to figure out exactly how many teens gave birth in various media markets. And then we bought data from Nielsen — ratings data — to figure out how many teenagers were watching MTV across the country. And then also something a bit novel for economists: We got all historical data on Google searches as well as the universe of Twitter data.
On what they were looking for in the Google and Twitter data
In the Google data we were really looking for … people searching for information about how to get birth control around the time the shows were viewed — and there are really striking spikes in the data. The day that an episode airs and the next day we see large spikes in the rate at which people are searching for how to get birth control and we see higher volumes of searches in places where more teens are watching MTV.
The Twitter data was astounding. In the Twitter data we can actually see what teens are tweeting and there are literally thousands of tweets that say things like: “Watching 16 and Pregnant reminds me to take my birth control.” [And] “16 and Pregnant is the best form of birth control.” So getting that insight into what teenagers were thinking about while and right after they watched the show was really informative.
On what they found
The show had a sizeable impact. Our estimates from the data suggest that when the show came on, teen birth rates as a result of this show fell by 5.7 percentage points over this 18-month period. To put that in perspective, that is a third of the overall decline in teen birth rates over that time. So the full scope of what we find is that this decline in this period, half is due to the recession, a third is due to 16 And Pregnant, and the remainder is due to an ongoing downward trend in teen childbearing rates.
On this study only looking at births, not pregnancy — could an increase in abortions also be at play?
The data on abortion is not yet available. Data comes out with a long lag. So we’re not able to separate out the effect on pregnancy and abortion. So we see the decrease coming from births. We think it’s largely driven by a reduction in teen pregnancy, because the overall trend is pregnancies are down and there has not been an increase in abortions. But the sort of detailed data that allows us to look at that across places is not yet available.
On what we should take away from this study
The biggest take-away from this study is that what teenagers are watching can make a really big difference in what they think, and ultimately how they behave and really important life decisions. Interestingly, usually we talk about the media as a negative effect on behavior — an increase in violence, an increase in sex — but this show suggests that context really matters, and the specific content of what’s portrayed really matters. So in this case, the media images seem to be really having a positive social effect to the extent that we think that a reduction in teen births is a good thing.
On whether she watched the show before the study
We started watching this show after we launched our research project. … When we read the conflicting claims in the paper about: this glamorized teen child bearing, this had a depressive effect on teen child bearing. Having never watched the show, we didn’t know which way it would cut. Like everyone else I see the tabloids at the grocery store that has some of these girls on the cover and in my mind it could have gone either way. Once we started watching the show, my co-author and I … we thought: Gosh, this is actually really depressing. Once we started watching it, what we were seeing in the data made more sense.