A slew of recent studies have been done investigating the relationship between television-watching habits and teen pregnancy rates. The result has been unclear, with evidence piling up that television can both increase and decrease a teen's risk of early pregnancy.
A study published in Pediatrics medical journal found that teens who were exposed to high levels of sexual content on television were twice as likely to become pregnant or impregnate someone as teens who consumed very little sexual content.
In a New York Times blog post, Tara Parker-Pope suggested that “steamy” television shows targeted toward teens depict “casual, consequence-free sex” that could lead viewers to be less careful about birth control and more likely to have sex in general.
However, Parker-Pope notes that the same study found that teens who watch high amounts of television overall are actually less likely to experience pregnancy than those who watch very little.
A study by the National Bureau of Economic Relationship suggested that the MTV show “16 and Pregnant” may have contributed to a drop in teen pregnancy rates. According to CNN, the 18 months following the program’s premiere saw a nearly 6 percent drop in teen births.
The documentary-style show, as well as its spin-off “Teen Mom,” chronicled several months in the life of a teenaged mother. According to TIME, episodes of these shows aim to present a “realistic” picture of the changing lives of these young women: fights with partners and parents, financial and academic struggles, missed parties and proms.
Other studies have been less optimistic about the show’s effects, suggesting that its disproportionately wealthy and successful subjects glamorize teen pregnancy and equate it with celebrity.
Teen pregnancies have been declining steadily in the U.S. over the past two decades. According to CNN, teen births have decreased by about 2.5 percent a year since the 1990s.
The authors of the Pediatrics study as well as the “16 and Pregnant” analysis emphasized that the strongest predictor of teen pregnancy remains the home environment. Teens whose parents teach them about birth control and the consequences of casual sex are still dramatically less likely to experience pregnancy.