Could 'Teen Mom' stop teen mums?

Research finds MTV reality shows have real and statistically significant effect on teen births.
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Research finds MTV reality shows have real and statistically significant effect on teen births.

Through all the conversation around teen pregnancy this week, it's been easy to lose sight of the actual numbers.

When it was last recorded in 2013, just 5.9 per cent of all New Zealand births were to mothers aged between 15-19. Over 71 per cent of those were 18 or 19. This is the lowest rate of teen births ever recorded, part of a huge international downward trend in teen pregnancies that nobody can quite explain.

Some point to greater access to sex education, better contraceptives, and abortions. Others point out that teens are just having less sex. 

Then there's those who point to the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant.

This isn't just idle speculation. A rigorous study from the government-funded National Bureau of Economic Research shows that exposure to the show 16 and Pregnant and its Teen Mom spinoffs has a marked effect on the teen birthrate.

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In fact, they believe the show is responsible for a 5.7 per cent reduction in teen births in the entire United States.

The reality shows dramatise the life of teen mothers and mothers-to-be, often showing them struggling with time management and a diminished quality of life. Many have criticised the shows for "glamorising" teen pregnancy, as some of the show's subjects have become famous in their own right.

"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," wrote authors Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine.

"This accounts for around one-third of the overall decline in teen births in the United States during that period."

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The researchers got to to this number by looking at how much the show was watched in certain areas and how much the birthrate in those areas dropped. With precise geographical data from ratings company Nielsen and birth numbers from a government database, they were able to find a causal relationship between the show and teen pregnancy. Confounding factors - those who live in high birthrate areas are more likely to be interested in shows about teen births - were controlled for.

They were also able to prove that teenagers who watched the show often Googled and tweeted about contraception and abortion after watching the show.

"The finding that 16 and Pregnant has an impact suggests that MTV drew in teens who were actually at risk of teen childbearing and conveyed to them information that led them to change their behaviour, preventing them from giving birth at such a young age," the authors write.

Whether these findings hold true in New Zealand is unclear.

Sky broadcasts 16 and Pregnant along with its Teen Mom spinoffs in New Zealand. They refused to release rating numbers for the shows, citing commercial sensitivity, but said the show was popular.

"It's evident that New Zealand has a clear appetite for the genre as 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom are amongst our highest ratings shows on MTV in New Zealand," an MTV spokeswoman said.

Teen births are falling in every region of New Zealand except for Northland, where they are rising. The abortion rate is also dramatically falling.

 - Stuff

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