MTV’s ’16 and Pregnant’ may have halted teen pregnancy rate

16 and Pregnant cast members Catelynn Lowell and Maci Bookout attend MTV 'Restore The Shore' Jersey Shore Benefit. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

TORONTO – Who needs condoms, the pill, and even abstinence? If you’re trying to convince your teenagers to practice safe sex, it may be wise to park them in front of the TV.

A new study is suggesting that 16 and Pregnant, an MTV reality show that chronicled the pregnancies of six teens may have helped to prevent thousands of teenage pregnancies.

Teen pregnancies across North America have been slowly decreasing. Researchers at the University of Maryland and Wellesley College say shows like 16 and Pregnant may be why.

“We find that 16 and Pregnant led to more searches and tweets regarding birth control and abortion and ultimately led to a 5.7 per cent reduction in teen births in the 18 months following its introduction,” lead authors Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine said in their study.

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The New York Times is pegging the 5.7 per cent reduction to a possible 20,000 teenage pregnancies.

At first, critics said shows like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom would glamorize teen motherhood to young women. Its cast, afterall, was handed 15 minutes of fame as they dealt with dropping out of school, baby daddy drama and disappointed parents.

The show faced a lot of scrutiny – accused of exploiting teenagers, of glorifying their pregnancies while churning out reality TV stars. Some of the Teen Mom girls graced the covers of U.S. tabloids, some moved to Hollywood and one even released a sex tape following their stints on the 2009 show.

But Kearney and Levine studied birth records and television ratings to find that teen pregnancies were lowest in areas where teens were watching the most MTV.

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While looking at Google data, they noticed “striking spikes” in searches on how to get birth control on the days when episodes would air.

Twitter data, meanwhile, painted as even clearer picture, Kearney told NPR: “There are literally thousands of tweets that say things like ‘Watching 16 and Pregnant reminds me to take my birth control’ [and] ’16 and Pregnant is the best form of birth control,’” she said.
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“The biggest take-away from this study is that what teenagers are watching can make a really big difference in what they think, and ultimately how they behave and really important life decisions,” Kearney told NPR.

The study’s authors say they know 16 and Pregnant isn’t the only factor in bringing down the teen pregnancy rate.

Around the world, teen pregnancies are declining. A CDC report out last May said that across the board, teenage pregnancies were plummeting by as much as 30 to 40 per cent.

READ MORE: Teen birth rates dip in all but 2 U.S. states, CDC report says

In Canada, teen pregnancies seem to spike in areas with economic uncertainty while women overall were postponing motherhood.

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