Couple teenagers with a little reality television and the virtual experience has iterated what traditional sex education cannot. MTV’s 16 and Pregnant depiction of melting teenage romances, youth distortion, and marginalization resonated enough with audiences that it aided in the decline of U.S. teen birthrates. Professors Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine’s study, Media Influences on Social Outcomes, explores how 16 and Pregnant influenced the decline.
Using Google and Twitter data juxtaposed with the show’s ratings, Kearney and Levine were able to trace the decrease over an 18-month period to a 5.7 percent fall in teenage births — which is one-third of the overall declining trend since 2008. After an episode aired on MTV, Google searches on birth control increased vastly. Tweets containing “birth control” increased by 23 percent after each new episode; remarks such as, “16 and Pregnant is the best birth control” being common.
Further analysis of social media language found that locations showing higher search rates and tweets about “16 and Pregnant” also showed higher search rates and tweets about birth control and abortion. High viewership in specific locations even corresponded with a bigger decline in teen pregnancies.
“The results of our analysis indicate that exposure to ’16 and Pregnant’ was high and that it had an influence on teens’ thinking regarding birth control and abortion,” the researchers explained.
After an episode aired on MTV, Google searches on birth control increased vastly. Tweets containing “birth control” increased by 23 percent after each new episode
Viewerss shared stories of similar televised narratives like “one of my best friends got pregnant her senior year [high school]. For a while, she seemed to handle it well. But then I started seeing her lose friends. I heard people talking about her… I saw her miss senior prom, fight with her boyfriend over everything, and fall behind in school. She lost her [college] scholarship and missed out on a lot. Seeing that first hand really cemented in my mind that I do NOT want to end up there.”
Kearney tells NPR that “usually we talk about the media as a negative effect on behavior — an increase in violence, an increase in sex — but this show suggests that context really matters. So in this case, the media images seem to be really having a positive social effect…”
How ’16 and Pregnant’ Helped Lower US Teen Birthrates