A joint study between researchers at the University of Maryland & Wellesley College published by the National Bureau of Economic Research is claiming that the popular MTV show, and its Teen Mom spin offs are the cause of a 5.7 percent decrease in teen births (Kearney & Levine, 2014). To briefly summarize the study, researchers measured the shows exposure, based on Nielsen’s Ratings, data from Google Trends and Twitter Tweets, in order to determine if the places in the United States where the show was most popular correlated to geographical areas that saw significant decreases in teen childbearing. The researchers presented a strong case that there is a positive relationship between these variables.
Unfortunately, the researchers go so far as to make the claim that the show “…had a sizable, causal impact on teen birth rates (Kearney & Levine, 2014 p.33)”, essentially saying that the show is responsible for the decline of 5.7% of teen births in the United States. After reading the study, I am deeply concerned by the claims that are being made, and the perpetuation of the claims by media outlets including Huffington Post, New York Times, and others.
From my perspective, not only as a former teen mother and teen parent advocate, but as a PhD student of Social Psychology and Assistant Professor of Human Services, this study can only successfully demonstrate two things; 1) that people who watch the TV show are more likely to perform Google searches and Tweet about birth control and abortion and 2) that there is a correlation between decreases in teen birth rates in places where the show was most popular and show popularity. To say that the show is responsible for a 5.7% decrease in teen birthrate overall is a huge exaggeration of the results.
At a very basic level any undergraduate student of social sciences would know that in order to prove that one thing causes another, you need an experimental design which unrealistic for this line of research. Even with the type of design that Kearney & Levine (2014) implemented there are major questions to be answered before we can start to even consider what they are claiming. For example, what specific cities/towns showed the highest correlations? Are these towns also places that are high-risk areas and received Federal Funding, or other funding sources, for Teen Pregnancy Prevention programs? Also, I’d like to see the demographic information regarding the population of the study. Research demonstrates that the highest decrease in teen pregnancy by sub-group is among the Latina population (National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy, 2013) which is the same population that is least likely to watch the show according to Kearney & Levine (2014). These are just a few, of many, questions that would need to be answered before claims that the show reduces teen childbearing in any significant way.
Further, what are the implications of these types of claims? That media can be a substitute for research based intervention, positive mentorship, education, etc.? That we should continue to exploit young people dealing with other high-risk issues in order to decrease negative outcomes? What is the significance of this type of research?
So although this study may demonstrate that the show influences fans interest in the subject in teen pregnancy, I don’t see any solid evidence that she show is shaping the behaviors and decisions of teens in any significant way. Further, I am deeply concerned that these types of claims can undermine some of the amazing, hard work that organizations are doing every day with young men and women in order to address the challenge of teen pregnancy and parenting. TV shows should never be substituted for the work that it takes to shape adolescent attitudes, behaviors, and life outcomes.
Kearney & Levine (2014) Media Influences on Social Outcomes: The Impact of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant on Teen Childbearing, National Bureau of Economic Research. Cambridge, MA
National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Parenting (2013) Fast Facts: Teen Pregnancy and Childbearing Among Latina Teens. Washington, D.C.