Reality TV brings viewers a host of life lessons: Do not leave your passport in a cab in Morocco (“The Amazing Race”). Don’t skip out on dance class to go singing (“Dance Moms”). And don’t get knocked up when you’re not even old enough to see an R-rated movie.
That last one is the lesson of, yes, “16 and Pregnant,” one of MTV’s two reality shows that depict adolescent pregnancy, along with “Teen Mom.”
A study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research this week indicates that teenage viewers seem to be getting the lesson of the shows, and working harder to avoid pregnancy. Researchers studied viewing habits and Internet histories and found that teenage viewers tended to look up information about sex in order to better prepare for it. The paper estimates that the shows have helped to reduce overall teenage pregnancy by 5.7 percent since soon after they began running.
“The fact that MTV knows how to make shows that teens like to watch, which speak to them in ways that resonate, presumably is critical to the show’s impact. Apparently, this approach has the potential to yield large results with important social consequences,” the study concludes.
The shows aren’t devoid of learning. Here is dialogue from one of the season premieres of “Teen Mom 2,” between teen mother Chelsea and her friend Laura:
Laura: “Does he know your birth control fell out or that you’re not on it?”
Chelsea: “Well obviously I told him.”
Laura: “And he still had sex with you?”
Chelsea: “He pulled out!”
Laura: “That doesn’t mean anything.”
Chelsea: “I know! I know!”
That entire thing could be scripted, but Laura’s not wrong about effectiveness of certain prevention methods, and this is just one instance of the show’s sex education. Good job, TV!
And yet less than a week before NBER released its study, researchers at Indiana University Bloomington and the University of Utah released a different study of the same shows and found that they actually lead to greater numbers of misinformed teens, who watch “Teen Mom” and think that teenage motherhood is like like living on Easy Street.
“Heavy viewing of teen mom reality programming positively predicted unrealistic perceptions of what it is like to be a teen mother,” they wrote. The study based its conclusions off of interviews with 185 high school students about perceptions of reality TV and teen pregnancy.
The IU study actually seems more concerned with media coverage of the shows, which has created a tabloid star out of teen mom Farrah Abraham after, well ... here’s a Wikipedia summary. If cast members like Abraham are giving false impressions for teens, however, that seems to speak more about being able to exploit minor fame than about being a teenage mom. The shows themselves, usually focused on girls of middle-class backgrounds, don’t lay on the ritziness. When teen mom Jenelle takes her son to the gym, it’s not even an Equinox!
And “16 and Pregnant,” as the IU paper acknowledges, lays the potential problems of teenage motherhood on thick: C-sections, health complications, sleeplessness, and relationship issues, among others. (Less than 40 percent of pregnant teens graduate high school, too.) The shows feel more like an MTV spin on the after-school special than “The Young and the Restless.”
TV shows about sex offer the same caveat as shows about violence or, well, any TV: Context can be usefully added, whether by a parent or a school. Teenagers are engaged in enough risky behavior to warrant multiple TV series—not even including openly fictional ones—so with many adolescents not having a reliable source of sex education, media will fill that void.
Meanwhile, no study has yet determined the negative influence of MTV’s “Teen Wolf.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.