According to Eliana Dockterman at TIME:
Whereas 16 and Pregnant only traces the nine months leading to birth, Teen Mom follows the lives of the same teens after the baby showers are over and the reality of life with a baby sets in. A typical episode of the show follows the new moms as they fight with the fathers of their children (many of whom have now left them), fight with their parents (who are usually supporting them), struggle financially, struggle to finish their degree, and watch their friends enjoy prom and college without them.
This sounds very difficult. How many teenage girls would watch this show and want to emulate its stars? Hopefully none. MTV has set up a website—StayTeen.org—to go along with their teen mom shows. StayTeen.org tries to prevent teen pregnancy by discussing relationships, abstinence, birth control, and more. Is it helping? As Docterman reports:
The study suggesting a link between the show and a drop in pregnancy rates, conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that the rate of teenage pregnancy declined faster in areas where teenagers were watching more MTV programming. After crunching the numbers, they concluded that the shows prevented more than 20,000 births to teen mothers in 2010 alone. (emphasis added)
Docterman appears to be conflating teen birth rates with teen pregnancy rates. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research‘s actual abstract:
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.
Notice that they talk about a reduction in teen births, not teen pregnancies. After all, what would searches on abortion have to do with decreasing pregnancy rates? Abortions don’t prevent pregnancies; they prevent births by ending pregnancies. I don’t know if the 5.7% reduction stat is cause for celebration because I don’t know whether it means that teens are being more careful about their sexual choices or that teens are more likely to seek abortion. Maybe it’s both.
In either case, the birth rate reduction may not be the result of MTV’s shows anyway. As Docterman points out:
[The study] only proves correlation, not causation. The study does not rule out other factors, like increased sex education at schools in those same areas where families can afford to pay for cable television and allow their children to watch a liberal channel like MTV.
The study doesn’t rule out sex education?? That’s a pretty important factor. And what are the abortion rates—especially the teen abortion rates—in those same areas? What are the parental notification laws? What are the socio-economic demographics? Both abortion rates and teen birth rates have been shown to correlate to different demographics, after all.
Docterman herself seems skeptical that MTV is driving the national decline in teen birth rates. She concludes:
Spreading the word about contraception, birth control and the risks of unprotected sex through popular media may be having some positive effect. Glamorizing teen pregnancy may be diminishing that effect. But either way, MTV can’t do the work of the adults in the lives of teenagers.
Docterman points to studies that show teenagers who can have frank conversations with their parents about the ramifications of unprotected sex are less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior. Maybe one of the better ways to lower teen pregnancy rates is to make sure we don’t leave the parenting to the likes of MTV.