16 and Pregnant: Can Reality TV Promote Positive Social Change?

Can Reality TV be a force for positive social change?

We invited David Rosen to survey the research findings that MTV’s 16 and Pregnant is a factor in the falling U.S. teen pregnancy and birth rates.

by David Rosen.

16 and Pregnant has been a commercial and branding success for MTV and Viacom Networks.

  • It generated high ratings and fueled a national debate.
  • The series attracted an unusual level of academic research.
  • Several studies linked 16 and Pregnant to a significant decline in the rate of pregnancies and births among U.S. teen girls.

In this post: a summary of the research studies (with links) and their findings.

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About 16 and Pregnant

“MTV’s ‘16 and Pregnant‘ is an hour-long documentary series focusing on the controversial subject of teen pregnancy. Each episode follows a 5-7 month period in the life of a teenager as she navigates the bumpy terrain of adolescence, growing pains, rebellion, and coming of age; all while dealing with being pregnant. Each story offers a unique look into the wide variety of challenges pregnant teens face: marriage, adoption, religion, gossip, finances, rumors among the community, graduating high school, getting (or losing) a job. Faced with incredibly adult decisions, these girls are forced to sacrifice their teenage years and their high school experiences. But there is an optimism among them; they have the dedication to make their lives work, and to do as they see fit to provide the best for their babies.” MTV

The Show

  • Premiered in June 2009.
  • Through 2014: 61 episodes / 8 specials.
  • Spin-off series Teen Mom ran for four seasons (2009-2012).
  • Check out MTV’s informative and very well-designed website 16 and Pregnant.

Format

  • Each episode follows a teenager who serves as the program’s subject and narrator during 412-8 months of her pregnancy.
  • Each girl who is profiled receives a $60,000 talent fee.
  • Cartoon animations and other computer-graphic techniques creatively engage the teen target audience.

Cultural Buzz!

  • Here’s a measure of the social impactof the series: The names of one of the featured mothers and her son (“Maci” and “Bentley”) were the names that saw the greatest increase in frequency in 2011.

Falling Teen Birth Rate

  • Over the last two decades, the US teen birth rate declined by 56.9%.
  • In 1991, the U.S. teen birth rate was 61.8 births for every 1,000 adolescent females.
  • By 2013 the rate had fallen to 26.6 births per 1,000 adolescent females.
  • In 2006, there was a blip in the teen pregnancy rate: it increased for the first time in more than a decade; among white girls, 3 in 10 became pregnant before the age of 20 and among nonwhite girls pregnancies jumped to 1 in 2 girls.
  • Since 2007, pregnancy rates have declined by 29 percent.
  • Nevertheless, in 2013, 274,641 babies were born to females aged 15 to 19 years.
  • For teen pregnancy data, see HHS.

Research Studies

  • Did 16 and Pregnant play a role in the sex education of teen girls and thus contribute to the declining teen birth rate?
  • Six peer-reviewed academic studies during 2010-2014 shed light on the question:

2010: Teen viewers’ attitudes and 16 & Pregnant

  • Science Says published, “Evaluating the Impact of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant on Teen Viewers’ Attitudes About Teen Pregnancy,” by Katherine Suellentrop, Jane Brown and Rebecca Ortiz.
  • It was sponsored by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and conducted by Innovation, Research, and Training, Inc. (iRT).
  • Also contributing were the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and support from the Ford Foundation.
  • A total of 162 teenagers affiliated with the Boys and Girls Clubs, ranging from 10 to 19 years old (and average age of 13.5 years) completed pre- and post-test questionnaires.
  • Among the key findings was that 82 percent of teens reported watching 16 and Pregnant and indicate that it “helps teens better understand the challenges of pregnancy and parenthood.”

2011: Exploring the impact of 16 and Pregnant

  • Tiffany Brewer, a graduate student at American University, conducted focus groups with five girls aged 15-17 and their mothers.
  • The girls were students at St. Vincent Pallotti HS in Laurel, MD.
  • The study is titled “Exploring the Impact of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant on Parents and Teenage Girls
  • It concludes: “MTV’s show 16 and Pregnant, by way of entertainment education, may provide a unique opportunity to open the eyes of teenagers and create a more engaging environment for learning.”

2012:  ‘They Don’t Teach This in High School’

2014: Understanding the effects of 16+ on adolescent girls’ beliefs…

2014: Heavy viewers have ‘unrealistic views’ of teen mothers

  • Indiana University researchers Nicole Martins and Robin Jensen’s study, “Heavy viewers of ‘Teen Mom’ and ’16 and Pregnant’ have unrealistic views of teen pregnancy,” surveyed 185 high school boys and girls aged 14-18 years.
  • Students had the impression that “teen mothers have an enviable quality of life, a high income and involved fathers.”
  • They are more likely to believe that teen parents “have affordable access to healthcare, finished college, and lived on their own.”
  • “Heavy viewers of teen mom reality programs were more likely to think that teen moms have a lot of time to themselves, can easily find child care so that they can go to work or school and can complete high school than were lighter viewers of such shows.”

2014:  Media influences on social outcomes

  • Melissa Kearney (University of Maryland) and Phillip Levine (Wellesley College) present an econometric analysis in “Teen Births Are Falling: What’s Going On?: The Impact of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant on Teen Childbearing”;
  • The study was sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
  • The researchers integrated Nielsen rating data with Google searches and Twitter tweets.
  • The series led to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births during its first 18 months on the air.
  • This would account for about one-third of the overall decline in teen births.
  • The study couldn’t prove that individual teens changed their minds about unprotected sex after watching the show.

More Social Research…

  • In 2006, the Kaiser Family Foundation assessed a half-dozen reality shows and found that they “increase the likelihood that viewers’ knowledge, attitudes, values and behavior will be influenced by exposure to the shows.”

David Rosen is a New York-based writer. He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net. And check out DavidRosenWrites.com.

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