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When MTV’s two reality shows, “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” launched, many criticized the network for glamorizing teen pregnancy. But a new study shows that rather than making teen pregnancy look appealing, the shows are responsible for a significant drop in births to teenagers. We speak with the study’s author about the surprising findings and possible new approaches to influencing teen behavior.
- Phillip Levine Professor of Economics, Wellesley College
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." They're both shows on MTV. "16 and Pregnant" has been on the air for five seasons. Each episode takes one teen and follows her during pregnancy and after she gives birth. "Teen Mom" is a spinoff that follows four of the young mothers as they care for their babies. Critics say the show glamorized teen pregnancy, but a new study says, in fact, the shows have contributed to a nationwide drop in teen pregnancy.
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKJoining us to look at the shows and their influence on teen behavior is Phillip Levine, professor of economics at Wellesley College joining us by phone from Massachusetts. Thanks for joining us, Phillip.
MR. PHILLIP LEVINEGlad to be doing this.
GOLBECKFor listeners who aren't familiar with these two reality shows, describe what they're like.
LEVINEWell, each -- an episode of "16 and Pregnant" follows the life of a teen mother from the point when she's roughly six months pregnant until about the time when she's about three months after giving birth. And it's a reality TV show. It chronicles what's going on in her life. "Teen Mom" just is sort of the sequel in the sense it follows the select group of mothers over, you know, a longer period of time. So in the first year of the season of the show there's maybe -- you know, the kids are three or four years old now.
GOLBECKWhat made you decide to look at the influence of these two shows "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom?"
LEVINEWell, what started all of this for us was the very rapid decline in birth rates that started to occur in 2009, 2010. A relevant question at the time was, you know, what's going on that's leading to this rapid increase in the rate of decline. You know, we were reading -- well, Melissa and I -- my co-author Melissa Kearney at the University of Maryland had been researching this topic for, you know, a decade or so. And, you know, we were reading the explanations that people were giving in the popular media. And we found most of them to be not terribly satisfying.
LEVINEAnd then we saw a quote from Sarah Brown, who's the president of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, who suggested perhaps part of the -- "16 and Pregnant" is part of the solution or part of the answer. It's contributing to the decline. And at that point we decided it seemed like a question worthy of exploring.
GOLBECKAnd can you describe to us what you found about how these shows affect and reduce the number of teens having babies?
LEVINEWell, we found that these shows had a substantial effect. So in our analysis and the, you know, period after the shows were introduced, we estimate that they reduced teen birth by 5.7 percent. That accounted for about a third of the decline that had occurred over the 18 months after the show -- after "16 and Pregnant" first started. And, you know, that's a pretty big effect. It's not as large as -- the biggest effect was recession and, you know, weak labor market conditions. But after that, "16 and Pregnant" was the second biggest factor.
GOLBECKYou too can join the conversation. Have you watched "16 and Pregnant" or "Teen Mom"? What do you think about their power to persuade? Have you ever been influenced by a reality TV show to change your behavior? You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850, by emailing us at email@example.com, or by sending us a tweet to @kojoshow. Why do you think these shows are so successful and reaching and influencing teenage girls?
LEVINEI think what's the most important ingredient to these shows is that, you know, they're produced by MTV, which is a company that, you know, if they know how to do anything, they know how to reach young viewers. And so they're able to produce shows which actually resonate with people. In this particular context, and I'm not saying that any of their other shows particularly do this, but in this particular context, MTV's ability to portray exactly what is happening in these teen girls' lives at the time of giving birth, you know, it's credible in a way that would be difficult to repeat otherwise.
GOLBECKWe have an email on that note from Amy in Washington DC who says, "My teenage daughter and I used to watched "Teen Mom" together. My daughter loves children, and I always worried that "Teen Mom" would be a bad influence since the young women get a lot of attention with some of them ending up on the cover of celebrity magazines. However, when we watched the show, we would talk about the stress on the girls as they tried to parent while their friends were out enjoying themselves.
GOLBECK"I also pointed out how much work the grandmothers ended up doing, and emphasized that I did not want to be in that situation. I think that helped my daughter think realistically about parenting as a long-term goal, something you work toward after you get other aspects of your life stable." Is that a common -- common theme among girls or their parents who have watched these shows that you found?
LEVINEOne of the things that we did in our analysis that I think, you know, really drives home the point, is we spend a lot of time looking at data from Twitter and Google Trends. The Twitter data in particular is, I think, pretty remarkable. I mean, you know, people -- young people these days apparently tweet while they watch TV, and the period immediately after they watch TV in terms of what they're thinking about. And that exact sentiment is not an uncommon thing for people to tweet about.
LEVINEPeople would tweet about the fact that they were doing, you know, mother-daughter "16 and Pregnant" marathons, where clearly it was the mother's idea...
LEVINE...to do this, you know, trying to convey the message that the show portrays.
GOLBECKSo can you talk to us a little bit more about your methodology? How does one determine that 5.7 percent reduction in teen pregnancy is due to this show? What did you look at and how do you make that relationship?
LEVINEWell, what we do in our analysis, in terms of birth rates is to think about, you know, across the country there's over 200 television markets, and in some of those markets, MTV is more popular among young viewers than in other markets. And what we're looking for is, you know, the thing we're trying to figure out is, in the places where MTV is more popular, even in the period before the show starts, in those locations, is it the case the teen birth rates fall by more? And sometimes what's happening is the content of the show is just changing from, you know, whatever it is that they would normally be showing to these messages about teen childbearing.
LEVINEAnd in the places where that exposure is going to be greater, we should expect to see larger declines, and that's exactly what we see.
GOLBECKAnd how do you connect that to the actual percentage of reduction in teen pregnancy that can be tied to the show?
LEVINEWell, it has to do with the increase in viewership. So for, you know, a particular, you know, for a particular increase in viewship, what's the estimate for the decline in teen birth rates, and then we just multiply that by the average viewership and that gives us the percentage decline that we would expect nationwide.
GOLBECKI see. Let's take a call from Jill Mount Airy, Md. Jill, you're on the air. Go ahead.
JILLThanks. Yeah. This is really interesting research. I'm curious is the decline in parenting represent, you know, these girls are having more abortions or they're not getting pregnant in the first place, or they're putting them up for adoption? Do you -- did you look into that?
LEVINESo we don't have specific data on sexual activity, contraception use and abortion. That would be phenomenal if we were able to get that, but those data don't really exist in a level of detail we would need. What we do know though, is that teen birth rates are falling at the same time that teen abortion rates are falling at a national level. So it's pretty hard to imagine that it's coming through greater use of abortion. Most likely it's attributable to a reduction in pregnancy. Whether that reduction in pregnancy is attributable to sexual activity or contraceptive use, you know, is less clear.
GOLBECKYou too can join the conversation. What role do you think testimonials like the ones on "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom" can or should play in teaching sex education? Join us by calling 1-800-433-8850 or emailing us to @kojoshow. Let's take a call from Tara in Vienna, Va. Tara, you're on the air. Go ahead.
TARAHi there. I just had a comment to make. I started watching the show with my kids who are now older teens, back when it first came out. And I think that by watching it together, I was able to sort of point out to them how wonderful and happy and sunshine and roses it was when you're pregnant and how it -- how, like, exciting that seems, but just about every single episode showed the heartache, the difficulty, the breakups, the single parenting, that happens after you have a baby.
TARAAnd I think that we glamorize teen pregnancy, and even all pregnancy now about how wonderful and glowing and beautiful, but nobody really talks about what happens afterward. And I really think the show did a great job showing girls, boys, teens, young adults, you know, truly how hard parenting is, and that it's not just this tiny little thing that seems, you know, wonderful and amazing, which is it, but it's a lot of hard work.
GOLBECKThanks for your call, Tara. Phil, can you expand on that? Can you talk about what's actually in the show for those of us who haven't seen it. Are they showing these girls completely exhausted, what does it say about the relationships with the fathers of these children?
LEVINEYeah. It's actually -- I mean, I think that the comment relates back to the earlier discussion we had that it seems like this is, you know, something of a phenomenon with mothers and daughters watching the show together. In that sense I think it provides a great source of sex education. In terms of the content of the show, you know, I think it's different than what I was expecting when I going in to look -- watching it, because to be quite honest, I never really watched the show until we started doing the study.
LEVINEYou know, I was hoping for sort of more in depth conversations about what the kids were thinking about and what they were doing, and, you know, kids don't care about that stuff. That doesn't sell on TV. What sells on TV is the, you know, the drama of the personal relationships, and the personal relationships are very strongly emphasized on the show. You know, the relationship with a boyfriend is clearly never -- or rarely, I should say, going as well as the teen mom would have expected going into the, you know, going into this event.
LEVINEYou know, a lot of these episodes are about the stress in the relationship between the girl and her boyfriend. A lot of it is about the stress in the relationship between the girl and her parents, about -- and stress in the relationship between the girl and her friends. You know, in pretty much every aspect of the girl's life, she's encountering difficulties, and I think that that, you know, realistic portrayal in a credible way of what the girls are going through is what accomplishes the outcome.
GOLBECKSo you think with that description of all the difficulties that these girls are going through, do you think it's a fair accusation that these shows are also glamorizing these teens moms, or no?
LEVINEI think the claims about the glamorizing teen pregnancy is not about the show itself. I think it's about the -- when you go to the grocery store and you see all the magazines at the checkout counter, I think that's where that comes from. And I think that, you know, a lot of those arguments are probably made by people who have never actually seen the show. I think that if you've watched the show, it's sort of hard to get that out of the content of the show itself.
LEVINEThe other thing which I, you know, should say is that there is -- people have asked me about a conflicting study that talks about some, you know, there are small pockets of the population who do view -- of teenagers, who do view the show as glamorizing teen pregnancy. And, you know, we don't dispute that. I think it's hard to imagine that the entire country thinks the same thing about anything. But in terms of our study, what matters is that the predominant effect is this, you know, the pressing aspect of the, you know, the realization of what life would be like that leads to overall the downward decline in teen pregnancy.
GOLBECKWe have a tweet from Valeria (sp?) who says, "'Teen Mom' showed me how difficult that life is, and to be safe while I'm young. I learned a lot." Is that something that came up in the tweets that you were reading and the information you got from Google?
LEVINELike I said, it's, you know, sometimes research is complicated and sometimes things just pop right out at you, and looking at tweets about the show, and just reading them, and there are thousands of them, it's not difficult to see what people are thinking. There's just thousands of tweets during the period after the show began that say things like "16 and Pregnant" is the best form of birth control, and, you know, different variants of that. But it just shows up over and over again.
GOLBECKAnd it seems like that was somewhat intentional on MTV's part. Looking at quotes from them, they say that they're deeply grateful to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy for their guidance. And so it seems like that was something that was built into the show that they maybe wanted to help prevent teens from getting pregnant.
LEVINEYeah. I don't think it's a surprise that the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy is a consultant on the show. You know, I think that they're trying to make sure that that's the message that one would get across from watching the show.
GOLBECKYou can join the conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850, or emailing us @kojshow, I'm sorry, emailing us to firstname.lastname@example.org. Phil, what do your findings tell us about how the role -- about the role that popular media like television shows can have on actual behavior?
LEVINEI think in some sense that's probably the biggest take away from this project. I think that there's a public discussion that takes place and has taken place over time trying to assess, you know, what does the media do. What's interesting about that -- there's a couple things I think that are interesting about that. First, the evidence that media has any impact at all is relatively limited in the sense of being actually convincing evidence. I think we've done that.
LEVINEThe other thing which I think is interesting about it is that usually when people talk about the media and its influence on individual behavior, it's about negative outcomes. So, you know, if there's too much violence in movies, people will go out and commit crime. And I'm not saying that's true or not true. That's not what our study is about. But what our study is about is providing an indication that it may also have positive effects as well.
LEVINEThis is a perfect example of a case where we really feel like we've done a good job providing strong evidence that the influence of the media in this particular instance has led to a positive outcome for society.
GOLBECKSo I'd like to kind of transfer that into a twist on this idea of whether or not the show glamorizes teen pregnancy. We've talked about that, but I have a quote here from Parents Television Council Director Melissa Henson, who wrote, "Instead of really helping viewers understand the day-to-day responsibilities of attending to a new infant, scrubbing poop stains or spit up out of clothing, or dwelling on the mundane, MTV chooses to focus on the girls' volatile relationships with the babies' fathers or their new body piercings and tattoos. That makes for better TV."
GOLBECKSo I know you're not an expert on MTV production, but could you share some thoughts on how you think including that kind of mundane or difficult detail, incorporating that into the show, would it have a stronger or weaker impact? Because on one hand, it certainly is showing things worse, on the other hand, it may be less engaging to teen viewers.
LEVINEYeah. I mean, the fact is what you said is exactly right. It makes for better TV which means the kids are watching it and actually incorporating it and it's resonating with them. If, you know, to be quite honest, if I were to make a TV show about teen childbearing, it would be boring and nobody would ever watch it. They know how to make shows that teens like to watch, and that's why it has a positive impact. If they watched my show, it wouldn't have any impact.
GOLBECKLet's take a call from Sandra in Silver Spring. Sandra, you're on the air. Go ahead.
SANDRAHi. I was just going to share an anecdote about this study that I had heard that University of Maryland was actually doing it, and my son is a student there. And I made a comment to him about it and he said that it was hilarious because last year when he was still a senior in high school, a friend of his had planned on having sex for the first time, and went to one of their houses and were alone, and it was all going to be planned and perfect. And in the time where they decided to have a snack, they sat down and the show was on and after watching for awhile, they both looked at each other and agreed that it wasn't quite worth it. So I think it has served as an excellent form of birth control.
GOLBECKAnd MTV as a killer of the mood for teens as well.
GOLBECKPhil, do you have any comment on that call? Thanks, Sandra.
LEVINEYeah. Like I said, I think that that's exactly what people tweet about when they watch they show. You know, they watch the show and they think to myself, oh, my God, I don't want that to happen to me, and they take the necessary precautions and get pregnant less.
GOLBECKAnd have you seen in these tweets -- I know we had a caller ask about adoption or abortions, but have you seen in these tweets people talking about specifically going out to buy more birth control or that that's something that they're going to be doing more often?
LEVINEThey certainly talk about, you know, wanting to buy more birth control. Or another thing that people tweet about is, this is my daily reminder to take my pill. You know, so there's -- and any different way -- any combination that you can think about birth control being an element of a tweet that would indicate something changed -- something clicked in the people's minds that they really don't want to have a baby, it's in there. You know, in terms of, you know, we tried to look at adoption. Adoption is sufficiently uncommon, but it was difficult for us to untangle any effects there.
LEVINENot to say that there aren't any, but it's not a big, you know, it doesn't happen a lot. Actually the thing is there are an increase in tweets about abortion as well, which may indicate that people are thinking about abortion more frequently. It doesn't seem like the evidence suggests that they actually act on that though.
GOLBECKInteresting. So many researchers ask whether media has a negative impact on viewers, but you asked whether it has a positive impact. Why is that difference significant?
LEVINEI mean, I think our focus on a positive impact was because of the nature of the show in the sense that that's where we saw the effect was being, you know, positive in terms of reducing teen childbearing. You know, I think the one thing to keep in mind is that our study says nothing about the possibility that negative impacts could be possible as well. So it's possible in different contexts and different settings, you know, with different forms of media, that those forms of media have negative effects.
LEVINEWe're not saying it doesn't. We're not saying that all media has a positive effect. It certainly could have a negative effect. It's just that the evidence to support that supposition at the moment isn't really all that strong.
GOLBECKSo I have one last question for you, and actually an email that goes along with this from Katie who says, "I was in high school during the years that "Gilmore Girls" was filmed. I had a group of friends who talked constantly about how they wanted to have babies before graduating high school in order to have as close as relationship Lorelai and Rory have in "Gilmore Girls." I think the tendency to demonize "Teen Mom" and "16 and Pregnant," while at the same time never looking at how unrealistic life was for the characters on "Gilmore Girls" makes no sense.
GOLBECK"I'm not a fan of any of these shows, but would be interested in seeing how teen pregnancy rates were impacted during the "Gilmore Girls" era." And I'd like to tie that into a broader question for you that you have, you know, about a minute to answer, about whether you think this model for "16 and Pregnant" or "Teen Mom" are transferable, and could those be a model for other messages?
LEVINEYou know, I certainly think it's the sort of thing that's worthy of exploring. You know, the fact that we were able to identify something that, you know, worked in a positive sense, you know, doesn't necessarily mean that it is transferable, but I think it would be interesting to think about how it might be. To some extent, we have other examples that we can take from this, so, you know, for example, there's a "Scared Straight" program which is sort of a, you know, message that gets conveyed to at-risk youth trying to convince them not to commit crime spoken by true, you know, by actual prisoners.
LEVINEThat's seems to not work very well. So there's an example of an impact that's not great. But, you know, testing these sorts of things is always good.
GOLBECKPhillip Levine from Wesley College, thanks very much for joining us.
GOLBECKI'm Jen Golbeck sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for listening.
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