I Want My (Teen Mom) MTV?

Sure to please parents and sex educators everywhere, MTV has solved the teen pregnancy crisis. Since the cable network started filming "16 and Pregnant" fewer teens have gotten pregnant. Sure the teen birth rate has fallen 44% from 1991 to 2010 but after the show aired in 2009, the numbers dropped 9% from 2009 through 2010. Naturally it must have been the show.  As Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times declared in the headline of a recent column, "TV Lowers Birthrate (Seriously)." 


At least there's a study behind this claim and it's a cutting edge, social media savvy, Big Data, Research 2.0, TED-talk-ready one, linking MTV's fine oeuvres to Twitter and Google: 
Tweets containing the words “birth control” increased by 23 percent on the day after each new episode of “16 and Pregnant,” according to an analysis by Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland and Phillip B. Levine of Wellesley College. Those tweets, in turn, correlate to increased Google searches along the lines of “how get birth control pills.” 

Kearney and Levine find that regions with a higher audience for “16 and Pregnant” and the “Teen Mom” franchise had more of a drop in teenage births. Over all, their statistical analysis concludes that the shows reduced teenage births by 5.7 percent, or 20,000 fewer teenage births each year. That’s one birth averted every half-hour. via New York Times
Before you make your daughter binge watch 4 seasons of Teen Mom, it's worth noting the current study does not directly link watching television to any behaviors including ones related to the actual prevention of pregnancy. 

Yes lots of young viewers appear to tune in to these shows. Yes they seem to tweet a lot about pregnancy and such afterwards. Yes they seem to Google a lot about pregnancy and such afterwards. As they likely do in response to any number of other tv shows, songs, commercials, YouTube videos or random happenings at school, home, the bus stop. At this point it's not certain if they go on to act on this curiosity or information. No one was surveyed on their screen time use or birth control use. It's not clear if any young women, as a result of the no doubt riveting drama, procure condoms let alone learn how to use condoms, use said condoms or otherwise take measures to not get pregnant including the family-values-loving one (the a word). 

One thing I do know, the current study doesn't merit the frequent causal language in the media coverage (even you, NPR?, no skepticism?), the journal article or its title: Media Influences on Social Outcomes: The Impact of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant on Teen Childbearing.To beat the unglamorous correlational/causation drum, there is no causal evidence here. Not even evidence it's the same kids watching as tweeting and not getting pregnant. Hopefully the next installment of this VIP investigation won't land in the journal National Bureau of Economic Research, not exactly a hot bed of human sexuality however many quants as a result now follow Farrah Abraham on Twitter (or watch her sex tape). I know, the authors are economists and the financial consequences of teen pregnancy are severe, long-lasting, etc. I should be glad someone cares enough to do  the work. A better study though would survey teens about the shows they watch then follow them over time to see if the show seemed to influence their actual behavior (e.g., contraceptive use, condom use, pregnancy). Investigators then wouldn't need to rely on Nielsen and Twitter to test the hypothesis. Maybe someone's doing that study right now.

Until then, no disrespect to Billy Idol but it's too early to declare I Want My MTV. The Teen-Mom-TV-Birth Control Theory, however provocative or prophylactically promising, remains too speculative to warrant a change in my Tivo line up (seriously). 

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