Teen Mom makes kids think being a teen mom is awesome, but still caused birth rates to drop

Three years ago, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found in a survey that teens who’ve watched 16 and Pregnant “think the show helps teens better understand the challenges of teen pregnancy and parenthood and how to avoid it.” In other words, it helped prevent teen pregnancy.

A few months later, MTV executive Lauren Dolgen wrote on CNN.com that her series “sparked a long-overdue national discussion” and said her shows were “cautionary tales about the consequences of unprotected sex, and the reality of becoming a parent too early.”

But new research says that’s completely wrong.

IU Bloomington assistant professor Nicole Martins and University of Utah assistant professor Robin Jensen published research in Mass Communication and Society that found “Heavy viewers of teen mom reality programs were more likely to think that teen moms have a lot of time to themselves, can easily find child care so that they can go to work or school and can complete high school than were lighter viewers of such shows. … Heavy viewing of teen mom reality programming positively predicted unrealistic perceptions of what it is like to be a teen mother.”

Specifically, the kids surveyed thought teen moms had lots of money, college degrees, their own residences, easy and cheap health care, and a high quality of life, plus fathers who were involved in their kids’ lives.

Update, Jan. 13: A new study released on Monday from The National Bureau of Economic Research found “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. This accounts for around one-third of the overall decline in teen births in the United States during that period.” The New York Times elaborates:

“[Hamilton Project's Melissa] Kearney and [Wellesley College's Phillip] Levine examined birth records and Nielsen television ratings, finding that the rate of teenage pregnancy declined faster in areas where teenagers were watching more MTV programming — not only the ’16 and Pregnant’ series — than in areas where they did not. The study focuses on the period after ’16 and Pregnant’ was introduced in 2009 and accounts for the fact that teenagers who tuned in to the show might have been at higher risk of having a child to begin with.”

Is it possible for both of these reports to be accurate and exist in the same universe? Definitely. They’re not as contradictory as they sound, because The Mass Communication and Society report suggested that some kids had “unrealistic perceptions” of teen motherhood, which obviously is fueled by the tabloid attention for the shows’ stars. But having that kind of attitude doesn’t necessarily mean they ran out and got pregnant.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.