MTV’s ‘Teen Mom’ May Have Actually Stopped Kids From Getting Pregnant

What if MTV had this master plan to veer away from the one-time purpose of the network – Music Television – and promote and showcase programming that is so reprehensible and vile that it would eventually change the way that America’s teenagers look at reality? What if MTV’s whole purpose behind introducing us to so many seasons of the worst people in world, from The Real World to Jersey Shore, was not to encourage these heinous lifestyles, but to teach us that this kind of behavior is wrong and detrimental to the future of all mankind? I know it’s the king of all stretches, but there’s a chance that my wild theory might be true.

According to a new study by economists Phillip B. Levine and Melissa S. Kearney, the teen birth rate in the United States declined significantly between 2008 and 2011, and we apparently owe thanks not only to the recession, but also to MTV’s 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom, as these horrible shows that have produced “celebrities” like Jenelle Evans (above, after her third arrest) and regretful porn star Farrah Abraham have taught teens that these lifestyles are *GASP!* not good.

Using data from numerous sources, we examined the impact that the MTV show, 16 and Pregnant, has had on on-line search and Twitter activity and, ultimately, on rates of teen childbearing in the United States. Our results suggest the introduction of the show led young women to search and tweet about birth control and abortion, indicating that it had some influence on them in a way that could potentially change their behavior. We also find that exposure to the 16 and Pregnant shows had a sizable impact on the rate at which teens give birth in the United States, generating a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births that would have been conceived between June 2009, when the show began, and the end of 2010. That can account for roughly one-third of the decline over that period. We do not have sufficient data to carefully evaluate the role that more frequent use of abortion played in contributing to this effect. We do know, however, that aggregate abortion rates for teens were also declining over this period (Pazol, et al., 2013), suggesting that a reduction in pregnancy is the likely mechanism.

The finding that 16 and Pregnant had an impact suggests that MTV drew in teens who actually were at risk of teen childbearing and conveyed to them information that led them to change their behavior, preventing them from giving birth at such a young age. The fact that MTV knows how to make shows that teens like to watch, which speak to them in ways that resonate, presumably is critical to the show’s impact. Apparently, this approach has the potential to yield large results with important social consequences. Typically, the public concern addresses potential negative influences of media exposure, but this study finds it may have positive influences as well. Presumably the effect on the attitudes or behaviors of teens and young adults could be positive or negative, depending on the specific media content and context. We find that media has the potential to be a powerful driver of social outcomes.

These results are incredible, if true, mainly because it might mean we can return to the better days of MTV, when the network had music video blocks like 120 Minutes, Yo! MTV Raps, Headbangers Ball and Alternative Nation, among others, that helped further the careers of bands and solo artists that people would otherwise never hear of. Or MTV could just double down and make a show called Poop Eaters. I feel like it could go either way.