The Effects of Teen Pregnancy Reality Shows

Curiously, two stories at Digg today deal with MTV's reality series 16 and Pregnant and its spinoff Teen Mom. They both cover surveys about the show's effects …and they seem to say almost opposite things.

At Pacific Standard the headline says Reality Shows ’16 and Pregnant’ and ‘Teen Mom’ Teach Teen Viewers Nothing. The article tells of a survey of teenagers done by communications professors at Indiana University and the University of Utah.

Instead, the most dedicated fans among the 185 high school teenagers (between the ages of 14 and 18) surveyed were more likely to be under the impression that “teen mothers have an enviable quality of life, a high income and involved fathers.” Only 20 percent of young men admitted to watching the shows, but the correlation also crossed gender lines.

The second article is from the New York Times, with the headline MTV’s ‘16 and Pregnant,’ Derided by Some, May Resonate as a Cautionary Tale. It cites an economic survey by Melissa S. Kearney of the Hamilton Project and Phillip B. Levine of Wellesley College that, instead of asking opinions, crunches the numbers in both TV ratings and birth records.

A new economic study of Nielsen television ratings and birth records suggests that the show she appeared in, “16 and Pregnant,” and its spinoffs may have prevented more than 20,000 births to teenage mothers in 2010.

The paper, to be released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research, makes the case that the controversial but popular programs reduced the teenage birthrate by nearly 6 percent, contributing to a long-term decline that accelerated during the recession.

What does this tell us? For one thing, the two surveys are not studying the exact same effects, and certainly use different data. The first blurb refers to the shows' "most dedicated fans," while the second includes people who don't even watch. As much as news stories differ from source to source, we should seek out a variety of angles on a subject to get a well-rounded view -and even then, the small details can point out how seemingly contradictory results arise.

It may also be telling us that teens are smarter than they get credit for: even though a tale of unplanned pregnancy landed some teens their own TV show with its accompanying income, the odds of such success are not worth the risk. At least that's what we hope.  


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