16 & Pregnant Prevented 20,000 Real Teen Pregnancies — Seriously

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Teen_PregnancyPhoto: Cultura/REX USA.
You need only a basic knowledge of MTV's 16 & Pregnant, and the follow-up Teen Mom, franchise to know that the stars girls on the show have pretty tough lives. Between drug charges, divorce, absentee fathers, and broken relationships with their own mothers, the teen moms in question certainly make very little about a teen pregnancy look attractive. But, according to a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, 16 & Pregnant may have actually prevented over 20,000 births to adolescent mothers in 2010.

The findings are the result of the work of economists Melissa S. Kearney, director of the Hamilton Project, and Phillip B. Levine of Wellesley College. The study, which focused on Nielsen television ratings and birth records, claims the program is responsible for a near 6% reduction in teen pregnancies. As Annie Lowrey notes in The New York Times, "The show — in part by educating teenagers about the difficulty of having a child, in part by stressing the consequences of unprotected sex and in part by fostering a conversation about contraceptives and pregnancy — seems to have reduced the rate of teenage births, according to the economic analysis." Though the show can certainly be seen as an educational tool, it's also important to note that, because the teens have become quasi-celebrities, the program also glamorizes teen pregnancy to a certain extent. And, with almost three million viewers for some episodes, that's a whole lotta influence.

However, the study shows that the rate of teen pregnancy declined faster in areas where adolescents were watching more MTV programming than in areas where they did not. And, as a peer-reviewed study, Kearney and Levine's colleagues find the conclusions to be sound. Though, researchers who reviewed the study did offer up the fact that there's no way of knowing whether viewers changed their behavior by having protected sex, having less sex, or something else entirely. The economists also showed that social-media postings and Internet searches reflected a high interest in contraception whenever the show was airing.

This study is interesting for so many reasons. And, while more thorough research is needed to clarify the exact nature of the show's influence, it seems that teens across America would rather abstain or practice safe sex than live a life that remotely resembles that of a Teen Mom cast member. And, they say kids today aren't self-aware. (The New York Times)