Does watching “16 and Pregnant” make teens more or less likely to become underage parents? Depends on how much you watch, according to two new studies.
One study stated that shows like “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” 1, 2, and 3 make teenagers less likely to get pregnant, linking teenage social media trends and show viewership to the real falling birthrate in underage girls. But another study said that watching too much teen mom TV has the opposite effect, giving viewers an unrealistic perception of underage motherhood.
Melissa S. Kearney, the director of the Hamilton Project, a research group in Washington, and Phillip B. Levine of Wellesley College released a study indicating that teen birth rates dropped in areas where the shows are highly watched. The analysts tracked social media and found that teens mentioned contraception far more when the show aired, calling it the best form of birth control.
“You can have all the sex-ed you want,” Sarah S. Brown, chief executive of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, told the New York Times. “But if you can say, ‘Could that happen to me?’ That brings a reality and a heightened connection that is very significant for teenagers.”
And yet, a study forthcoming in the journal Mass Communication and Society conducted by Nicole Martins at Indiana University in Bloomington and Robin Jensen at the University of Utah showed that "heavy viewing of teen mom reality programming positively predicted unrealistic perceptions of what it is like to be a teen mother."
So a small dose of teen mom shows is a good thing in preventing teen pregnancies— but too much tends to glamorize it. Martins and Jensen wrote that consistent viewing of teen mom shows leads viewers to believe that the mothers have high incomes, involved fathers, and time to finish high school as normal teenagers, as well as good child care.
"The fact that teens in the study seemed to think that being a teen parent was easy might increase the likelihood that they'll engage in unsafe sexual practices," Martins said, "because that's not a real consequence to them."
One thing you can’t argue with is the numbers: teen birth rates are going down significantly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that pregnancies in girls aged 15 to 19 were down 44 percent in 2010 from 1991, reaching an all-time low of 34.3 births per 1,000 women. Whether the drop can be attributed to better messaging, increased use of contraception or “16 and Pregnant,” America’s high schoolers are getting better and better at waiting to grow up to have kids.