MTV and Teen Pregnancy

Economists Melissa S. Kearney, who has appeared on this blog and our podcast before, and Phillip B. Levine have a new NBER paper (abstract; PDF) that looks at the influence of MTV’s reality-TV show 16 and Pregnant on teen pregnancy. Levine explained the study’s assumption to The New York Times:

Ms. Kearney and Mr. Levine examined birth records and Nielsen television ratings, finding that the rate of teenage pregnancy declined faster in areas where teenagers were watching more MTV programming — not only the “16 and Pregnant” series — than in areas where they did not. The study focuses on the period after “16 and Pregnant” was introduced in 2009 and accounts for the fact that teenagers who tuned in to the show might have been at higher risk of having a child to begin with.

“The assumption we’re making is that there’s no reason to think that places where more people are watching more MTV in June 2009, would start seeing an excess rate of decline in the teen birthrate, but for the change in what they were watching,” Mr. Levine said.

The authors found that the show “led to more searches and tweets regarding birth control and abortion, and ultimately led to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births in the 18 months following its introduction. This accounts for around one-third of the overall decline in teen births in the United States during that period.” According to the CDC, teen birth hit a record low in 2010 (the year of the study), and continues to drop. The teen birth rate in the U.S. decreased 25 percent between 2007 and 2011, and the preliminary data for 2012 shows that teen births are at a record low.

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  1. Mike D. says:

    Next they should look at the drop in STDs after ‘The Jersey Shore’ first aired.

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  2. Doug says:

    And so research seems to prove that they glamorization of teen pregnancy is a fallacy?

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  3. NZ says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  4. NZ says:

    A common theme I’ve started to notice in Freakonomics is the Interesting Statistic That’s Devoid Of Any Demographic Analysis.

    What kind of people mainly watch the show? Was it all one homogeneous group, or do several different groups tune in? If it’s several different groups, do they all tend to respond the same way–by searching for contraceptives and so forth–or do some wind up more likely to get pregnant while others don’t, and that 5.7% reduction in teen births is just the net effect?

    Also, is more birth control and abortion really a desirable alternative to teen pregnancy? If I were a devout Catholic I’d be pretty disturbed by this trend. I’d think, “Okay, it’d be better if girls were waiting until they were a bit older, and, you know, married, before they had kids, but I’d rather see more teen moms than an increase in contraception or the destruction of unborn human life!”

    Devout Catholics aren’t a huge part of the population, so maybe everyone thinks their spiritual and moral principles are okay to tread underfoot, but what about those of the millions of other people who share similar feelings about these issues?

    Anyway, another aspect of this is that teenagers are probably watching MTV from their laptops, not on TVs. Most teenagers can’t afford laptops, which means a parent probably bought the laptop for them. Parents who can afford to buy their teens laptops are more likely to have steady jobs, and are more likely to be married. That means there’s a father around. Teenage girls with fathers around are less likely to get pregnant.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Teen pregnancy is a social problem. Pre-marital sex is a moral problem. The overall society, especially the government, is reasonably interested in the social problem rather than the moral problem. We have collectively decided that morals are the duty of the family and religion, rather than the larger society.

      Having sex outside of marriage has very low externalities for the overall society, unless the result of that sexual activity is a baby being raised by people who can’t support the baby. A 16 year old “having sex” costs taxpayers almost nothing. The same 16 year old “having a baby” often costs society money for the baby’s medical care, food, clothing, accommodations at the mother’s school, childcare so the mother can attend school, loss of future earnings and taxes if the mother doesn’t finish school, etc.

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      • NZ says:

        There are probably dozens of negative externalities of sex outside of marriage, even without a baby. Here are just a few I came up with off the top of my head:

        -STDs & resultant medical, social, and lifestyle costs.

        -Abortion, which depending on your perspective is either an unfortunate but necessary procedure that is painful and traumatic for the woman getting it, or is basically infantacide–either way, a huge cost.

        -Fear and anxiety felt over the potential for there to be a baby–especially felt among the parents of sexually active teens and others who might be burdened with some of the costs of a baby born outside of wedlock.

        -Escalation of the potential for emotional insecurity among a group who isn’t exactly on emotionally solid ground to start with: being a depressed, hormonal teenager is one thing, but being a depressed hormonal teenager who can’t get laid when most of your peers seem to be humping like rabbits is another.

        -Cheapening of marriage (“If I can do all the things married people can do but not have to get married, why should I limit myself to just one sexual partner for the rest of my life?”), leading to an increase in illegitimacy and divorce rates, with all of their negative externalities.

        -The normalizing of sex outside of marriage, which contributes to more sex outside of marriage. (“You don’t believe in sex outside of marriage? What are you, some kind of fundamentalist evangelical orthodox weirdo? You think humans rode around on dinosaurs 6,000 years ago too?”)

        -Once sex outside of marriage is normalized, then you have to teach kids about birth control, STDs, etc. and warn them about getting pregnant. (Those dolls they make you take home in high school health class cost thousands of dollars each. Who pays for that? Not teens having sex!)

        A 16 year-old having sex would indeed cost society almost nothing, if she were to first marry the person she was having sex with and he was able to support his new family by working at a socially useful job (e.g. not a crack dealer or a gossip magazine photographer).

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      • Kazzy says:

        “…that is painful and traumatic for the woman getting it…”


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      • NZ says:


        Just about every defense of abortion out there includes some version of this qualification. People favoring legalized abortion take care to include this qualification so they don’t come off as wanting abortions for frivolous reasons or as a substitute for birth control.

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      • Kazzy says:

        Data… not anecdata.

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      • NZ says:



        “Anti-choice campaigners seem to think that abortion is a walk in the park, pop a pill and then you can get right back to your slut-life, but that’s just not true. Even a first trimester abortion will often result in heavy bleeding for several days…”

        Pat Scroeder, feminist politician:

        “Saying that abortion is used as birth control is like saying why bother eating when you can have an IV in your arm?”

        Carl Sagan, who wrote one of the most level-headed defenses of legal early-term abortion:

        “Acquiescing in the killing of any living creature, especially one that might later become a baby, is troublesome and painful.”

        You can also get some version of this qualification by asking any pro-choicer: “If abortions were safe, legal, and provided at no charge upon request, would you use them in place of birth control?” To which the answer is almost invariably “No.” Then just ask, “Why not?”

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      • EE says:

        Having marriage itself in a society has major costs.

        Divorce only exists because there is marriage. There are legions of high-paid lawyers whose main purpose is to increase the costs of ending a marriage. Widows get much more sympathy than divorced women as part of the shame attached to ending a marriage.

        Adultery is also part of the cost of maintaining marriage.

        There is lots of energy spent shaming people conceived outside of marriage (those bastards). I suspect, without the social bias toward propping up marriage, we could come up with a better system for children and their parents.

        We give tax breaks to married people that we don’t give to unmarried. That is a state subsidy – and costs serious money.

        The entire gay marriage debate and all the money and ink spilled over it wouldn’t exist without the social and financial subsidy given to marriage.

        People spend lots of time and money searching for the “one” that they can be with all of their life, despite the evident fact that people and their needs change in unpredictable ways throughout their life-span. And, due mainly to societal conditioning, they chain themselves to one candidate. The cost in decreased utility is probably enormous.

        Eliminating marriage would be hard, given the thousands of years of tradition and social support. But it might have more success than efforts to eliminate non-marital sex has had over the same thousands of years.

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      • NZ says:


        You need some facts. Here are some:

        There is growing consensus among evolutionary researchers that monogamy has been one of the foundational traits of our species. It is not just social conditioning that leads us to seek “the one.”

        Divorce in western culture was not common until about half a century ago. (Divorce was so uncommon before then it caused Christianity to break in two.) Gay marriage, wherein two gay people take on the role of, and expect the same treatment as, a straight married couple, has no precedent in the west at all. Yet, as stated above, marriage has been around, at the very least, somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 years. (I don’t know if monogamy was also common among Homo Erectus, Homo habilis, or Australopithecus, but let’s pretend it was invented with Homo sapiens just to give you the benefit of the doubt.)

        Saying that divorce and the gay marriage debate would not exist but for marriage is like saying “I wouldn’t be on the side of the highway with this flat tire if some stupid Mesopotamian hadn’t invented the wheel 5500 years ago!”

        Married people are healthier, live longer, and tend to make more money. They tend to be more steadily employed. They report being happier. They are less likely to break laws, drive recklessly, or litter. They are more likely to be educated and literate. They are less likely to use drugs, need welfare, or have psycho-behavioral problems. Unsurprisingly, so are their children. Whatever subsidy is created by the tax breaks afforded to the married more than pays for itself by creating a safer, healthier, more sustainable, more cultured, more rational society.

        Many attempts at “creating a better system” for raising children have been tried. The most famous of these was perhaps the one attempted on kibbutzim in Israel, where kids were raised communally, without their biological parents around. The results were pretty dismal. Like most basic institutions of life that people think they can redesign, evolution usually comes back around and says “Sorry, no you can’t.”

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  5. Franklin Samson says:

    But if you show news about suicide rates, the number of suicides increase.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      And if you show news about the Nigerian e-mail scams, then the number of scam victims goes down. “On television” does not automatically mean “increases the number of participants”.

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      • NZ says:

        News coverage of mass shootings seem to be correlated with an increase in mass shootings.

        How do we reconcile all this? Maybe it’s like, TV news coverage of some initiated action tends to make most people more defensive because they fear becoming victims of such an action, but also makes other people more aggressive because they are prone to initiating a similar action themselves and seeing it carried out on TV helps motivate them.

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  6. Shane L says:

    That is a most interesting bit of research. If anything I would have expected the teenage births to rise, not because the show glamourised teenage pregnancy, necessarily, but because it normalised it. I would expect teenage viewers to grow to see pregnancy as a normal part of adolescence.

    The article reads that “the realities of the lives of teen mothers are presented in ways that may have been unknown or difficult to imagine for other teens viewing the show”. It seems it may have deglamourised childbirth and shown potential teenage parents what a difficulty it can be.

    Nice freakonomic-y thinking there!

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  7. Joe j says:

    Having never watched this show, I have no opinion on how it shows teen pregnancy.
    Does it: Glorify it? Normalize it? Ridicule it? show it as a train wreck? Which would be important here.

    Is teen pregnancy really the problem, or just the easy to measure symptom. Considering a pair of 19yr olds married and expecting their first would be counted toward this. But a 23 yr old with 3 illegitimate kids and no job or support would not be.

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    • NZ says:

      I’ve seen a couple episodes. Other commenters can say whether they agree or not, but I think it portrays teen parenthood as a struggle, painting the teenage girls as noble victims struggling in a big scary world that ought to be nicer for them. It avoids drawing attention to the girls’ larger patterns of bad decision-making (even if it shows plenty of examples), and it certainly avoids looking at larger social patterns that may have aided and abetted the bad decision-making. It also doesn’t seem to create much emotional momentum in the direction of the teen fathers. It’s just sort of treated as a morally neutral given that they have limited responsibility and will have a limited role.

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