There have been times I’ve been critical of shows like 16 and Pregnant because I thought that they glamorize teenage pregnancy by exploiting the teenage girls on the show and even making celebrities out of some of them.
Having worked in a high school in the past with a fairly high rate of teenage pregnancy, I knew that teenage pregnancy wasn’t glamorise at all. All of the girls I worked with in the high school who became pregnant eventually dropped out. Some dropped out only to have another kid a year later.
In my article Young, Poor and Pregnant I discuss some of the downsides of programming like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, but a new study called “Media Influences on Social Outcomes: The Impact of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant on Teen Childbearing” which was written by Melissa S. Kearny of the University of Maryland and Phillip B. Levine from Wellesley College, found that 18 months after the shows introduction, teen birth rates actually dropped 5.7 percent in 2010. According the New York Times, that 5.7 drop is an estimated 20,000 teenage births prevented.
The study also showed that using Neilson ratings, in areas where the show was highly popular, the rates of teenage pregnancies declined the fastest.
During their study, the authors found that search engine searches and tweets about birth control and abortion grew significantly after the show was introduced. While I have written about some of the negatives of the show, I was surprised and happy to see that it had benefits that show that teenage girls aren’t as brainwashed and reality TV obsessed as some of us adults like to think. In fact, the study shows that many teenage girls can look at shows like this and not glamorize it, but recognize that they don’t want their lives to be as complicated, crazy or hard as most of the teenage moms on the shows.
One of the benefits of shows about teenage mothers is that they discuss an issue that is often shied away from and more accurately show the true effects of being a teenage mom, better than any sex education class or most lectures could. No one is totally crediting shows about teenage moms as the sole reason for the decline in teenage pregnancy. The rate of teenage pregnancy has been on the decline over the last 20 years and things such as the recession also bring the birth rate down.
However, what the show does do is make it more real so that teens can see that real teenage motherhood may not be the fairytale that they may imagine it will be (“now he will stay with me”, “I’ll feel more loved and supported”, etc.). These shows alone aren’t enough to continue to prevent teenage pregnancy. There still needs to be good sex education and parental guidance. One potential negative of the show is that in the study there was a trend for teenage girls who watched the show heavily to perceive the teenage mothers as having easier lives and still have time to be a kid, which usually isn’t the reality. For the most part, the one thing we can take away from this study is that teenage girls are more capable of learning from other teenagers mistakes than we may have given them credit for in the face of so much reality TV where the bad girls are celebrated and consequences seem few and far between.