LOS ANGELES — A new study concludes that the MTV show “16 and Pregnant” reduced teenage births by nearly 6 percent in the year and a half after the show started airing, countering concerns that the popular show has glamorized teen motherhood.
The study of Nielsen television ratings and birth records suggests that the show and its spinoffs may have prevented more than 20,000 births to teenage mothers in 2010.
The paper, released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research, makes the case that the controversial but popular programs reduced the teenage birthrate, contributing to a long-term decline that accelerated during the recession.
Each episode of “16 and Pregnant” follows a teenager through her pregnancy, delivery and the first weeks of parenthood. Its “Teen Mom” spinoff series, the latest season of which debuts next Tuesday, follows up with the mothers and their children. The depiction of both joy and hardship is unflinching, with angry parents, medical complications, lost sleep, financial difficulties and fights with absentee boyfriends.
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The two shows are both among MTV’s most watched, with some episodes drawing more than 3 million viewers, many of them young women.
Many of the mothers have become celebrities as a result of the show.
Farrah Abraham, for instance, appeared in a widely distributed sex tape and is now on the VH1 show “Couples Therapy.” A tabloid favorite, Jenelle Evans, has publicly documented her problems with drug abuse and has been repeatedly arrested.
“Only 40 percent of teenage mothers ever graduate high school; two-thirds of families begun by an unmarried teen mother are poor,” said one review of the program by the Media Research Center, a conservative group. “So what does MTV do? It shows how cool teen pregnancy is with a new reality series.”
Teen motherhood has plummeted over the past two decades, hitting a record low last year. Advocacy groups believe sex education and the economic downturn have helped bring down the numbers, but the show — in part by educating teenagers about the difficulty of having a child, in part by stressing the consequences of unprotected sex and in part by fostering a conversation about contraceptives and pregnancy — seems to have reduced the rate of teenage births, according to the economic analysis by Melissa Kearney, the director of the Hamilton Project, a research group in Washington, and Phillip Levine of Wellesley College.
By analyzing Google searches, Twitter and Nielsen ratings and comparing them to teen birthrates in different parts of the country, the researchers found that areas that had higher MTV viewership when “16 and Pregnant” started airing had faster drops in teen births.
All in all, the study for the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that the show ultimately led to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births, which accounted for nearly a third of the drop in teenage births between June 2009 and the end of 2010.
The study focuses on the period after “16 and Pregnant” was introduced in 2009 and accounts for the fact that teenagers who tuned in to the show might have been at higher risk of having a child to begin with.
“The assumption we’re making is that there’s no reason to think that places where more people are watching more MTV in June 2009, would start seeing an excess rate of decline in the teen birthrate, but for the change in what they were watching,” Levine said.
Researchers who had reviewed the paper said that its conclusions, as striking as they were, seemed sound, while stressing that every study has limitations. For example, there is no way to know whether individual viewers of the program changed their behavior by avoiding unprotected sex, but the researchers were able to correlate higher viewership overall with reduced birthrates.
“It’s a substantial and an important finding,” said Diane Schanzenbach of Northwestern University. “If they told us this cut the rate in half, I wouldn’t believe it,” she added.
The study also explores how “16 and Pregnant” might have influenced teenagers’ behavior. For example, the economists showed that social-media postings about contraception and Internet searches on the topic spiked sharply when the show was being broadcast.
Despite the criticism of the program and the mothers it depicts, teenagers who have seen it said it helped demonstrate how hard being a young parent could be, and began a conversation about how a teenager might end up in that circumstance.
“Watching ‘Teen Mom,’ you’re close to the characters,” said Kendall Schutzer, 17, a senior at a Washington high school. “You’re watching them go through their day. You’re seeing what different aspects of life are like with a child. I don’t know how else you could get to know something like that.”
Malachi Stoll, also 17, said that the show gave him and his classmates an easy way to talk about a “taboo” topic. But Stoll, a senior at a Maryland high school, said he felt it did not depict the full extent of the challenge of teenage parenthood.
“The show only documents those first nine months, and maybe a little after,” he said. “Does the girl finish high school? Where does the child end up? Those are topics that are very difficult to document, but important to getting the message across of what the ramifications are.”
In 1991, 62 teenage girls out of every 1,000 gave birth. By 2007, that ratio had fallen to 42 out of every 1,000. The latest recession and slow recovery caused the birthrate to drop more rapidly, to 29 out of every 1,000 by 2012.
The effect of “16 and Pregnant” could account for about one-third of the decline during an 18-month period through 2010, the study found.
The measured impact on fertility was greatest for black teenagers, who tend to be more likely to have children than their white and Asian counterparts.
Though the show seems to have turned teens away from parenthood, the larger reason behind the “staggering drop” in birthrates was the recession, researchers found.
Teen abortion rates fell during the same period that births were dropping, suggesting that increased abortion wasn’t behind the change.