Can MTV teach teens to be responsible?

by Rachel Lynn Aldrich
Posted 1/14/14, 04:10 pm

Television is often blamed for encouraging harmful ideas and habits in society. But is it possible for mainstream TV to be a force for good? A new study suggests that might be the case, according to a recent report on NPR.

The study suggests that the decline in America’s teen birth rate may actually be traced, in part, to MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and a similar show, Teen Mom, according to The Huffington Post

“The show had a sizable impact,” Melissa Kearney, a study co-author, told NPR. “Our estimates from the data suggest that when the show came on, teen birth rates as a result of this show fell by 5.7 percentage points over this 18-month period. To put that in perspective, that is a third of the overall decline in teen birth rates over that time.”

Researchers used birth rate data to determine the number of teens giving birth in different media markets, ratings data from MTV, historical data on Google searches, and Twitter chatter to reach their surprising conclusion. 

The day after an episode airs “we see large spikes in the rate at which people are searching for how to get birth control and we see higher volumes of searches in places where more teens are watching MTV,” Kearney told NPR. 

The Twitter data was even more convincing, because tweets directly cited the show as contributing to teens’ attitudes towards child-bearing and birth control.

Kearney noted the study’s findings debunk critics’ claims the shows glamorize teen motherhood. 

The study did not offer any conclusive evidence about whether the shows encouraged an increase in abortions. But government data show an overall increase in teens choosing abstinence and a downward trend in abortions. A 2011 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an increase in abstinence among teens, despite an increase in “safe” sex programs. In addition, the teens who are sexually active seem to be choosing birth control rather than abortions. In 2009, the abortion rate experienced its biggest one-year decrease during the last decade and trends continue to point downward.

“The biggest take-away from this study is that what teenagers are watching can make a really big difference in what they think, and ultimately how they behave in really important life decisions,” Kearney told NPR. “In this case, the media images seem to be really having a positive social effect to the extent that we think that a reduction in teen births is a good thing.” 

Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Rachel is an assistant editor for WORLD Digital. Follow Rachel on Twitter @Rachel_Lynn_A.

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