Recent headlines stated that the MTV show "16 and Pregnant" may have led to a decrease in teenage pregnancy, but a new study led by University of Arizona researcher Jennifer Stevens Aubrey presents a different depiction of the show's impact on teenagers.
Aubrey collaborated with Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, an assistant professor of communication, and Kyung Bo Kim, a post-doctorate fellow of communication, both at the University of Missouri, to conduct an online field experiment and survey involving 121 teenage girls, aged 14 to 18.
The team sought to examine the impact of "16 and Pregnant" on adolescent girls' pregnancy-related attitudes, beliefs and behavioral intentions. Some girls were assigned to watch an episode of "16 and Pregnant" and others were assigned to watch the MTV show "Made," a self-improvement reality show that tracks teens working to advance a personal goal.
Aubrey, Behm-Morawitz and Kim's article, "Understanding the Effects of MTV's 16 and Pregnant on Adolescent Girls' Beliefs, Attitudes, and Behavioral Intentions Toward Teen Pregnancy," has been published in the Journal of Health Communication.
Girls who watched "16 and Pregnant," when compared with the control group, reported a lower perception of their own risk for pregnancy and a greater perception that the benefits of teen pregnancy outweigh the risks, said Aubrey, an associate professor in the UA Department of Communication.
Although one-time viewing of the show did not significantly impact some of the measures – such as acceptance of teen pregnancy myths, acceptance of the ability to avoid teen pregnancy, attitudes about teen pregnancy or behavioral intentions to avoid pregnancy – regular viewing of the show did.
The MTV series "16 and Pregnant," which follows the life of 16-year-old girls during their pregnancy and after they have their babies, is intended to decrease teen pregnancy. The show is part of MTV's social responsibility campaign, and it has been promoted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. The show was the most highly rated cable show among female viewers 12-34 years old in 2010.
"Regular viewing of the show was consistent with beliefs, perceptions, attitudes and behavioral intentions that were the opposite of the goal of the show," Aubrey said, emphasizing, however, that the results for regular viewers do not show cause and effect. "It could be that teens who are already curious about pregnancy are drawn to the show."
The researchers also found that teens who thought they were similar to the pregnant teens were more likely to have a lower perception of their own risk for pregnancy, greater acceptance of myths about teen pregnancy and more favorable attitudes about teen pregnancy.
Teens who perceived a friendship relationship with the teen moms also had a decreased behavioral intention to avoid pregnancy.
"If participants perceive themselves to be similar to the teen moms, who are joyful that they have infants even despite their struggles, it makes sense they would be less inclined to express beliefs, attitudes and intentions to avoid pregnancy," the researchers reported.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that in 2009 approximately 410,000 teens gave birth in the U.S., which is higher rate than in any other developed country.
So why might a show intended to decrease teen pregnancy actually encourage it?
The idea behind "16 and Pregnant" is that viewers will see the negative consequences that come from having a baby as a teenager. A content analysis of the show conducted by one of Aubrey's graduate student collaborators at the University of Missouri does show more negative than positive consequences of pregnancy.
Aubrey claims, however, that the show is filled with mixed messages about pregnancy.
"There's this semi-scripted moment in every show where the girls say things like, 'If I had the opportunity, I would do things differently.' But, then there's also this adorable newborn, and the teen moms are getting all this attention from the people in their lives."
Aubrey says that one of the "myths of teen pregnancy" that is measured in the study is that most teenage fathers stay involved with the young woman they have made pregnant. In reality, most teenage fathers do not stay involved, Aubrey said, citing National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy data. In the show, however, the teenage fathers typically do stay, she said.
"Romantic relationships are really important to many teenage girls," said Aubrey. "And when you just look at those romantic relationships in the show, there are more positive consequences that the teen pregnancy brings than negative consequences."
The researchers also note that the money and celebrity that the teenage moms receive may also be appealing to teenage girls.
The researchers' findings are inconsistent with the findings in a recent study the National Bureau of Economic Research, issued in January, which posited that the show "16 and Pregnant" led to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births in the 18 months after its premiere. Those researchers looked at Nielsen ratings and teen pregnancy birth rates, as well as search data from Google trends and Twitter.
Aubrey says that her concern with those findings is that the conclusions are based on correlational results of aggregate data – there was a bigger drop in teen pregnancy in areas where teenagers were watching more MTV programming, not only the "16 and Pregnant" series.
"They are looking at data at the aggregate level but making assumptions about what is happening at the individual level, saying that '16 and Pregnant' is effective sex education for teens," Aubrey added.
Aubrey was inspired to conduct research on "16 and Pregnant" when she saw claims being made by celebrity doctor Drew Pinsky that the show was effective sex education for teens.
"This study was driven by the desire to answer a real practical question," Aubrey said. "Is this something we want girls to be watching? If the goal is to prevent teen pregnancy, is this show doing the job?"
Based on the results thus far, "probably not," Aubrey said.
"I am not convinced that this is a good show for teen girls to watch if you want to prevent teen pregnancy," Aubrey said. "However, if the girls are already watching the show, then parents need to make sure the teens recognize that the negative consequences of pregnancy outweigh the positive ones."
Aubrey and her colleagues are currently analyzing data from a second study on “16 and Pregnant,” which includes a more extensive viewing history questionnaire, a controlled laboratory experiment, as well as interviews with the teenage girls two weeks prior and two weeks after the study.