I want my MTV (to be a force for positive social outcomes)

In the silent, fluorescent-lit halls of the University of Maryland’s department of economics, someone has been running regression models over the MTV show 16 and pregnant.

Here’s one of the models:


The paper is called Media influences on social outcomes. The impact of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant on teen childbearing.

And here’s a sense of the show. In this episode from season two, 16 year old Ashley from McKinney Texas says things like “My boyfriend Justin and I recently broke up…. It’s funny to think I’ve been pregnant longer than Justin – the baby’s father – and I were even together.”

But here’s the thing. The regression models show a powerful effect. The show actually discouraged teen preganancies

The show led to an increase in google searches for birth control and abortion. which is merely circumstantial evidence, but it helps support the next finding.

Teen births fell 7.5 per cent a year since 2009 – the period in which 16 and Pregnant and its offshoots, the Teen Mom series, were showing in the US. This represent a rapid acceleration of an existing trend that saw teenage motherhood decline. The authors estimate the show is responsible for one-third of the decline, equivalent to 20,000 births in 2010 alone.

They controlled their study for factors such as a greater interest in that show in places where the teen birth rate is rising.

The study is important because a previous research effort found 16 and pregnant could be glamourising teen pregnancy in some cohorts.

Social policy lever?

In Australia, teen birth rates are lower than in the US, at 16 per 1000 for the 15-19 cohort, compared to 29 per 1000 in the United States.

In 2012, Australian mothers aged 16 bore 887 children and mothers aged 17 bore 2037 children. That equates to fertility rates of 6 per 1000 at age 16 and 14 per 1000 at age 17. [405 children were born to mothers under the age of 16.]

Teen pregnancy is not as significant an issue here as in the US. But we are not without social problems, and if people avoid what they see it is possible reality TV can create great social change:

Will the Great Australian Bake Off prevent thousands of unwanted collapsed sponges?

Could Being Lara Bingle discourage thousands of incipient modelling careers?

Is Big Brother Australia responsible for the rising rate of people living alone?

Might the Biggest Loser be the televisual equivalent of lap-band surgery?

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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