There are two new studies out this month that seem to contradict each other about the impact of the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant and its spin-off, Teen Mom. One of the studies, a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, shows that in the year and a half after 16 and Pregnant debuted in 2009, the teen birth rate declined about 15 percent and that the reality show is responsible for about a third of that decline. A second study, to be published in the journal Mass Communication and Society, says that high school students who watch a lot of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom have unrealistic ideas about teen pregnancies. They believed teen moms earn a lot of money and that the fathers of their children are highly involved.
Though superficially, the two sets of findings don’t seem to gel, when you look more closely, what may be happening is a reality TV phenomenon that affects all reality shows after their first seasons: The stars become famous. The first study, from the National Bureau of Economic Research, only looked at data from 2009 to 2010, the first year and a half after 16 and Pregnant hit TV screens. Back then, the depiction of teen moms—their financial and relationship struggles—was much more realistic, because there was no sense that getting on the show was a golden ticket to tabloid fame. “Imagine bein’ in prison. That’s what [motherhood is] like, bein’ in prison,” Jenelle, one of the featured moms on 16 and Pregnant said in 2010. No wonder viewers weren’t eager to replicate that experience.
Additionally, that NBER study—which synthesized Nielsen television ratings, birth records, and social media data from Twitter and Google to come to its conclusion about birth rates—looked at searches for 16 and Pregnant exclusively, ignoring Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2. They left that franchise out for good reason (the phrase “teen mom” in searches is too ambiguous and would muck up the data). So it’s possible that 16 and Pregnant, with its always new crop of fresh-faced, unfamous teenage mothers-to-be, is still somewhat useful as a cautionary tale even five years after its debut, though probably less useful than it used to be.
Less useful because, as the second study shows, the cover of Us Weekly can blunt the strong message of 16 and Pregnant. “The attention and opportunities seemingly thrown at these teen parents may appear so appealing to viewers,” the second study’s authors note, “that no amount of horror stories from the reality shows themselves can override them.”
So the problem, then, is not that MTV is making teen motherhood look amazing. It’s not: The teen moms have ended up in prison, and have been alleged victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, which MTV depicts in all its sordid sadness. It’s that tabloids—and more recently, the porn industry—are feeding off the popularity of the teen mom slate of shows and making cover girls out of these vulnerable women— posting pics of their bikini photo shoots and speculating about their new plastic surgery, while the moms are shown partying without their kids in Miami wearing T-shirts that say “off duty.”
Which is not to say that MTV’s entirely innocent. If they want to stem the tide of tabloid fodder, they should cancel Teen Mom, which puts a prolonged spotlight on particular young women, who then model some sort of career path to stardom for viewers (while 16 and Pregnant features each teen for just one episode). Considering how popular Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2 have been for the network—Teen Mom 2, a new season of which debuts on Jan. 21, is consistently top rated among the prime 18-49 cable demographic—I’m not holding my breath for that to happen.