Is reality TV the world's best birth control?

According to research from Wellesley College and the University of Maryland, MTV shows Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant led directly to a 5.7 percent decrease in teen births. That accounts for about one-third of the overall decline in teen births in the 18 months after the shows’ debuts in 2009.

In the U.S., teen births dropped dramatically between 2008 and 2012, according to the researchers. While the recession played the biggest role in that decline, the timing of the shows contributed to it. 

“In some circles, the idea that teenagers respond to media content is a foregone conclusion, but determining whether the media images themselves cause the behavior is a very difficult empirical task,” said Melissa Schettini Kearney, a University of Maryland economist.

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Kearney and Phillip B. Levine, a Wellesley College economist, conducted an in-depth study, analyzing several measures of exposure, including Nielsen ratings data and metrics from Google and Twitter. The researchers then examined the impact on teen birth rates using Vital Statistics Natality microdata.

The researchers found that the shows engage their audiences and have high ratings. They also found that searches and tweets about birth control and abortion spike exactly when the show is on and in locations where it is most popular.

“Our use of data from Google Trends and Twitter enables us to provide some gauge of what viewers are thinking about when they watch the show,” said Levine. “We conclude that exposure to 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom was high and that it had an influence on teens' thinking regarding birth control and abortion."

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Are the Shows Sending Mixed Messages?

But Linda Burke-Galloway, M.D., author of The Smart Mother's Guide to a Better Pregnancy, isn’t convinced that the shows had a direct effect on falling teen birth rates.

She cited a National Center for Health Statistics report from May 2013 that stated teen birth rates fell 15 percent in all but two states from 2007 to 2011. Rates went down by 30 percent or more in seven states. Hispanic teenagers saw the steepest declines in birth rates.

“I don’t know if the MTV shows can take all the credit for the decline of teen births, as authors Levine and Kearney suggest,” she said, adding that she commends the shows for showing what parenthood is really like.

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However, a recent study by researchers at Indiana University Bloomington showed that heavy viewers of teen pregnancy reality shows tend to believe that teenage mothers have a high standard of living, easy access to education and health and child care, and involved romantic partners.

They conclude that the shows—and their stars' celebrity status—may tacitly encourage young women to engage in risky sexual behaviors.

Do 'Teen Mom' Shows Teach Safer Sex?

Serena H. Chen, M.D., the director of reproductive medicine at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science at Saint Barnabas in Livington, N.J., said Kearney and Levine's conclusions are premature. 

“Although there was a correlation between the show, interest in the show by teens, and a drop in the teen birth rate and abortion rate, it is hard to say that the show actually caused the reduction in teen births,” she said, adding that it would be interesting to know what teens were actually saying over social media about the show. 

“Were they getting the message about safe sex? Did they really understand the implications of getting pregnant at this age? Did they talk about how they were going to change their behavior?" Chen asked.

Still, Chen is optimistic that MTV can be a vehicle to educate teens about sex.

“If MTV can relay positive social messages, they may have a lot more influence than less-entertaining campaigns,” she said.

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