Questionable TV as birth control

Austin sent me this NBER paper. “Media Influences on Social Outcomes: The Impact of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant on Teen Childbearing“:

This paper explores how specific media images affect adolescent attitudes and outcomes. The specific context examined is the widely viewed MTV franchise, 16 and Pregnant, a series of reality TV shows including the Teen Mom sequels, which follow the lives of pregnant teenagers during the end of their pregnancy and early days of motherhood. We investigate whether the show influenced teens’ interest in contraceptive use or abortion, and whether it ultimately altered teen childbearing outcomes. We use data from Google Trends and Twitter to document changes in searches and tweets resulting from the show, Nielsen ratings data to capture geographic variation in viewership, and Vital Statistics birth data to measure changes in teen birth rates. We find that 16 and Pregnant led to more searches and tweets regarding birth control and abortion, and ultimately led to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births in the 18 months following its introduction. This accounts for around one-third of the overall decline in teen births in the United States during that period.

I have to admit, I’ve never watched any of these shows. That’s likely not a surprise to those of you who know me only professionally, and a total shock to those of you who know me personally. For the record, I watch a crapload of TV, and it’s all over the map in terms of “quality”. Nevertheless, shows like this drive me crazy, mostly because I’m under the belief that they make light of serious situations and also fetishize behaviors many of us would like to see become less common.

But not Melissa Kearney and Philip Levine. They decided to test whether that was the case. They used four empirical approaches:

  1. A descriptive analysis of Nielsen ratings data as a predictive indicator of Google Trends and Twitter
  2. A similar analysis to see if ratings predicted searches for terms like “birth control”
  3. An analysis using geographic variation in the data to add nuance to previous methods
  4. An analysis using geographic variation in viewership to look for difference in birth rates

Recognizing that this is not a randomized controlled trial, please don’t take any of this as proven “causal”. Nevertheless, the results are worth thinking about. The show is popular, and tons of teens watched it and tweeted about it. But there was an associated increase in tweets and searches for things like “birth control” and “abortion”. This held true even in the third analysis.

Moreover, the authors found that the teen birth rate was 5.7% lower than expected because of the show. That’s about a third of the total decline in birth rates from June 2009 to the end of 2010. There was no increase in abortions, either, so it appears that the show is associated with a reduction in pregnancy, not an increase of terminated pregnancies.

I still won’t watch the show. But maybe I should stop judging others who do so harshly.


Hidden information below


Email Address*