When Farrah Abraham was first introduced to pop culture, she was a 17-year-old high school cheerleader in Iowa who was pregnant. While her public image has shifted from everything to porn star to author and aspiring musician, a new study reveals that the actions of the reality star and others on the MTV hit shows “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” have contributed to a national decline in teenage pregnancy.
The findings, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, show how the two MTV shows have led to a 5.7 percent reduction in the number of teen births. The amount represents an overall decline of about one-third since “16 and Pregnant” first aired in 2009.
“Of course, teen childbearing rates have been falling in the United States for some time: between 1991 and 2008, it fell at an annual average rate of 2.5 percent. But the pace of the decline accelerated between 2008 and 2012 to 7.5 percent per year,” study authors Melissa Schettini Kearney and Phillip B. Levine wrote in a blog post for the Huffington Post, adding that the number of teen abortions declined in this period. “Although the recession can explain the largest share of the 'excess' rate of decline in teen births, a substantial portion can be attributed to the MTV franchise.”
The “16 and Pregnant” franchise follows teen mothers throughout their pregnancy, delivery and time after giving birth. “Teen Mom” follows some of the same mothers as they navigate parenthood while juggling other responsibilities, like school, relationships and financial struggles. Since their appearance on the show, some of the cast members, including Abraham, have gained notoriety for their public struggles with drug abuse, custody battles, second marriages and other circumstances.
Kearney and Levine came to their conclusion after an in-depth empirical study where they analyzed data drawn from Google, Twitter and Nielsen ratings to see how teenagers reacted while watching the popular shows.
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The researchers found that tweets and searches related to birth control and abortion spike while the shows are being aired in areas where they're most popular.
“Twitter data reveals thousands of examples of relevant specific tweets: For instance, "Watching 16 and pregnant reminds me to take my birth control" and "16 and Pregnant" is a great form of birth control. These girls go through hell and hot water while (some) guys get away scar free. I'LL PASS!"’ the authors write in the Huffington Post, adding that searches on “how to get birth control pills” and similar ones relating to contraception rise while the show is on.
While the findings couldn’t determine whether watching the show influences individuals to avoid unprotected sex, the study did show a correlation between higher viewership and lower birthrates among teenagers.
“It’s a substantial and an important finding,” Diane Schanzenbach of Northwestern University told the New York Times. “If they told us this cut the rate in half, I wouldn’t believe it.”
The two shows have been the subject of scientific studies in the past. In 2012, researchers collected data from 313 female undergraduate college students with varying ethnic backgrounds and found that frequent viewers whose fathers communicated with them about sex while growing up were less likely to have had sex.
"Fathers who communicate with daughters about sex are especially apt to talk about the negatives of premarital sex, to speak of males' propensity for placing sexual pressure on females and to point out the consequences that result from the risky sexual behavior of others," the researchers wrote in the paper. "Females who have been regularly sent these types of messages should be especially likely to attend to the negatives of being a young mother depicted on '16 and Pregnant' and 'Teen Mom.'”
While critics of the shows have argued they “glamorize” teenage pregnancy, the latest study may show that the programs serve a higher purpose.
"The entertainment media can be, and often is, a force for good," Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, said in a statement. "MTV and other media outlets have undoubtedly increased attention to the risks and reality of teen pregnancy and parenthood and, as this research shows, have likely played a role in the nation's remarkable progress."