January 14, 2014 — The MTV show "16 and Pregnant" and its spinoffs might have prevented more than 20,000 teenage births in 2010, according to a study released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the New York Times reports.
Each episode of the show follows a different teenage girl through her pregnancy, delivery and the first few weeks of parenthood. The spinoff "Teen Mom" follows up with some of the girls and their children. According to the Times, the show is among MTV's most popular offerings. However, some groups have criticized the show, arguing that it glamorizes teenage pregnancy by making celebrities of the young women.
The researchers said the show could have helped educate teens about the consequences of unprotected sex by spurring conversations about contraception and pregnancy. They noted that social media postings and Internet searches related to contraception spiked whenever the show aired.
For the study, Melissa Kearney, director of the research group Hamilton Project, and Phillip Levine of Wellesley College examined birth records and Nielsen television ratings. The researchers focused on the time period after the 2009 debut of "16 and Pregnant," and they took into account that teens who chose to watch the show might have already been at a higher risk for pregnancy.
The researchers found that the rate of teenage pregnancy declined faster in areas where teenagers were watching more MTV programming -- including but not limited to "16 and Pregnant" -- than in areas where they did not. The show's measured impact on fertility was most pronounced among black teenagers, who are at a higher risk of pregnancy than white and Asian adolescents.
Overall, they estimated that the show reduced the teen birth rate by almost 6%, contributing to a long-term decline -- accelerated by the recession and slow economic recovery -- that has seen the teen birth rate drop from 62 births per 1,000 girls in 1991 to 29 per 1,000 in 2012. Ultimately, the show could have accounted for about one-third of the total 18-month decline since 2010 (Lowrey, New York Times, 1/13).