PhotoThere's general agreement that unmarried teen-age girls should not be encouraged to have babies. So when MTV came up with reality TV shows like “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom,” social critics went ballistic.

They warned that the shows glamorized teen motherhood and thousands of young girls would think they, too could land a reality show if they just got pregnant. While the concern is understandable, there is some evidence to suggest the shows had just the opposite effect.

Research by Wellesley College economist Phillip B. Levine and University of Maryland economist Melissa Schettini Kearney finds that since the shows began, there has been a 5.7% drop in births to teen-age mothers.

Could there be a link?

Whether there is any direct link has yet to be proven. After all, the teen birth rate was already in decline. But the economists say the introduction of the series does in fact coincide with a significant drop in the pregnancy rate. They say the critics may have been right that the media holds enormous influence over young viewers. They may have just been wrong about what the young female viewers would take away from the programs.

"In some circles, the idea that teenagers respond to media content is a foregone conclusion, but determining whether the media images themselves cause the behavior is a very difficult empirical task," Kearney said.

Negative reinforcement

And maybe the images of being up all night with a crying baby and not being able to go out with friends send a sobering message. The researchers believe there may be something to this and theorize that the timing of the shows and the rather significant drop in pregnancies do in fact have a link.

Kearney and Levine reached that conclusion after conducting an in-depth empirical study, analyzing Nielsen ratings data and metrics from Google and Twitter. The researchers then examined the impact on teen birth rates using Vital Statistics Natality microdata.

"Our use of data from Google Trends and Twitter enable us to provide some gauge of what viewers are thinking about when they watch the show,” Levine said. “We conclude that exposure to '16 and Pregnant' and 'Teen Mom' was high and that it had an influence on teens' thinking regarding birth control and abortion."

Abortions down too

While teen births were down, so were teen abortions, leading Kearney and Levine to conclude the drop in the teen birth rate is attributable to a reduction in pregnancies, not in an increase in abortion.

They further suggest that "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom" drew in female viewers who were most at risk of an early pregnancy. What they saw as the programs unfolded was akin to the drivers education films of yester-year, which showed graphic footage from real auto accidents. In other words, after seeing what it was like to be a mother, not that many teens were all that keen on trying it.

Kearney and Levine have advanced the contrarian notion that not all reality TV is worthless trash. Some may, in fact, have redeeming social value. The researchers, in fact, would like to see more.

"This approach has the potential to yield large results with important social consequences," they conclude. "Typically, the public concern addresses potential negative influences of media exposure, but this study finds it may have positive influences as well."

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