Viewers of the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant often tweet that it's an excellent form of birth control. A preliminary new study suggests they might be right.
At a time of sustained, long-term declines in teen birth rates nationwide, those rates fell especially fast soon after the show launched in June 2009, in the geographic areas where MTV programming is most popular, researchers say in the paper released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The show and its Teen Mom spinoffs, in which real pregnant teens are followed for months and shown giving birth and caring for infants, were responsible for an estimated 5.7% drop in teen births that would have been conceived in the 18 months after the franchise premiered, says the working paper written by two economists, Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland and Phillip Levine of Wellesley College.
If true, that would explain about one-third of the nationwide decline in teen pregnancies during that period, they say.
The finding is "absolutely plausible," says Bill Albert, program director at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Washington, D.C. "The conventional wisdom is that these shows glamorize teen pregnancy and parenting. What we've seen in the past, though, is that for teens who watch these shows, the message is more sobering than salacious."
Among those who have criticized the show is the Parents Television Council. In a commentary for CNN in 2011, the council's Melissa Henson said some teens might even see "getting pregnant and earning a spot on the show as her ticket to fame and fortune."
On Monday Henson said the study "is very interesting, and if it's true, if this show did contribute to declining birth rates, that's not a bad thing. But I'm a bit skeptical." She says the show and other reality programs on MTV play up "staged drama," not "responsible teen sex."
Levine says "plausible arguments can be made in both directions," but the study suggests the show deters teen parenthood.
Among supporting evidence gathered in the study: Tweets about and searches for information on birth control and abortion spiked at the same time tweets and searches about the show spiked, when episodes aired.
Among the typical tweets that mentioned the show, according to the researchers: "Watching 16 and pregnant reminds me to take my birth control" and "16 & Pregnant is a great form of birth control. These girls go through hell and hot water while (some) guys get away scar free. I'LL PASS!"
The researchers believe the birth declines were due to fewer pregnancies, not more abortions, because teen abortion rates have been falling nationwide, Levine says. But, he says, they can't rule out bumps in abortion rates in areas where the show is popular, because that kind of detailed geographic data is not available.
Teen birth rates have been falling since 1991, and the declines accelerated between 2008 and 2012, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. In 2012, 29.4 per 1,000 teen girls gave birth, down from 61.8 per 1,000 in 1991.
Factors including better sex education and greater access to birth control deserve a lot of credit, Albert says. Levine says the tanking economy after 2007 also played a role in the accelerating decline.
Important to note: The paper released today has not yet been formally reviewed by other researchers in the field or published in an economics journal. It has been submitted to a journal, Levine says.
The next season of Teen Mom debuts Jan. 21.