Media Influences on Social Outcomes: The Impact of MTV's 16 and Pregnant on Teen Childbearing
Although still higher than in any other developed country, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate has fallen significantly since the early 1990s, with the most rapid decreases occurring from 2008 to 2012. Previous academic research has produced limited evidence for the effectiveness of policies such as sex education programs, abstinence-only programs, or improved access to contraception intended to reduce the number of teen pregnancies. These finding beg the question of what does explain the observed decline. Kearney and Levine argue that a significant contributing factor to recent declines could have been the exposure of teenagers to the popular MTV show 16 and Pregnant.
To explore the impact of the show on teen childbearing, Kearney and Levine take advantage of differences across areas in MTV viewership, asking whether teen childbearing rates declined more rapidly after the show was introduced in locations in which it was more widely viewed. Their estimates imply that, relative to what otherwise would have occurred, the show led to a 4.3 percent reduction in teen births between June 2009, when the show began, and the end of 2010. Although the weak economic conditions associated with the Great Recession played a larger role in the reduction in teen births observed over this period, the effects of exposure to 16 and Pregnant represented nearly a quarter of the total decline. Kearney and Levine supplement their analysis of the program’s effects on birth rates using data from Google Trends and Twitter. These data allow them to examine the interest teens express in the show online and subsequent interest in birth control and abortion. Consistent with their findings that exposure to the show contributed to the decline in teen birth rates, the Google Trends and Twitter data suggest that exposure led to an increase interest in contraceptive use and abortion, suggesting channels through which the show could have affected teen birth rates.
Current teen pregnancy prevention efforts focus primarily on giving teenagers information about how to avoid pregnancies through comprehensive sex education, abstinence-only education, or increased access to contraceptives. Kearney and Levine’s results, however, suggest that helping teenagers to understand the real-life implications of becoming a mother can be a more effective approach. Their results highlight more generally the important effects that media exposure can have on adolescent behavior.
Kearney, Melissa S. and Phillip B. Levine. 2015. "Media Influences on Social Outcomes: The Impact of MTV's 16 and Pregnant on Teen Childbearing." American Economic Review, 105(12): 3597-3632.