Research Roundup: Reality Shows Contributed to Decline in Teen Childbearing—but Other Factors Also Played a Role

Diverse and smiling teen girls

The media often gets a bad rap when it comes to teen programming, but recent research suggests television shows can lead to positive outcomes under the right circumstances. Since “16 and Pregnant” debuted in 2009, followed by its spin-offs, “Teen Mom” and “Teen Mom 2,” there has been debate over whether the shows accurately portray early motherhood and its challenges or glamorize it. Two recent studies try to inject some data into the conversation, looking at the shows’ impact on teens' attitudes and behaviors.

One of the studies, published in January by researchers from the University of Maryland and Wellesley College, attempts to draw a line from the amount of buzz the shows generated in each state to teen birth rates after the first show debuted. Authors Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine compared Google search activity and postings on Twitter about the shows and about contraceptive use and abortion, along with Nielsen’s TV ratings of the shows, following the release of new episodes. Then, they looked at CDC Vital Statistics birth data to determine how many 12- to 24-year-olds in each state ultimately became teen mothers.

Kearney and Levine observed spikes in search activity and tweets containing the terms “birth control” and “abortion” when new episodes of the shows came out. In addition, they observed a more rapid decline in the teen birth rate in geographic areas where the shows were more widely viewed. Still, they say, it is possible that this finding is not random but rather that the show is more popular in locations with higher rates of teen childbearing.

Kearney and Levine write that based on their analyses, these shows “led to 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”—roughly one-third of the decline over that period. As with any causal research, it is important to look at other factors. Kearney and Levine point to previous research finding that during times when there is a weak labor market, as when the shows debuted, birthrates across the board tend to decline.

The impact of parent communication

So what about those teens who watched the show and still became young moms? A study from Indiana University and the University of Arizona, Tucson, published last year, informs the debate by taking a look at the influence of parents and popular culture side by side.  Previous research has found that U.S. teens cite their parents as perhaps the most important influence on their sexual behavior.

Authors Paul J. Wright, Ashley K. Randall and Analisa Arroyo wanted to see whether talking openly with their parents about sex changed the degree to which young women were influenced by the shows.

The researchers asked 313 unmarried 18- to 23-year-old women who were sexually attracted to men how often they viewed “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom.” The young women also answered questions about whether they had had sex in the past year and how often their mothers and fathers had communicated with them about sex during their childhoods.

Overall, women who had viewed either show were more likely to have recently had sex. This was true even after the researchers controlled for relationship status and ethnicity.

However, when Wright, Randall and Arroyo included parent communication in the analysis, they found a different story. Watchers of the TV shows whose fathers did not talk to them about sex while they were growing up were more likely to have recently had sex. But the opposite was true for women whose fathers had often talked to them about sex. The more those women watched the two shows, the less likely they were to have recently had sex.

Having talked to their moms about sex did not have a significant effect on women’s behavior.

Previous research suggests that “mothers are less prone to strongly and unambiguously discourage pregnancy-risk behavior than fathers,” Wright, Randall and Arroyo write. Fathers, they say, are more likely to point out the negatives of premarital sex, the possibility of young men putting sexual pressure on young women, and the negative consequences of other people’s risky sexual behavior.

In this study, young women who received strong messages about sexual risks were more attuned to the challenges presented in the shows. Those who did not get those messages were more likely to emphasize the positive traits of the teen moms, appreciate how they overcame challenges, and develop an optimistic view of teen motherhood.

These studies demonstrate that many factors influence teens’ behavior and whether they have unintended pregnancies and births. More research will help us get closer to understanding how healthy sexuality and the decline in teen births actually come about.

Read the articles

 “Media Influences on Social Outcomes: The Impact of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant on Teen Childbearing” (PDF, 366KB). Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine. (January 2014).

Father-Daughter Communication About Sex Moderates the Association Between Exposure to MTV’s ‘16 and Pregnant’/’Teen Mom’ and Female Students’ Pregnancy-Risk Behavior” (abstract). Paul J. Wright, Ashley K. Randall, and Analisa Arroyo. Sexuality & Culture, Vol. 17, No. 1 (March 2013).

Look for more articles about media and teen pregnancy in NCFY’s research library.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.

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