‘Teen Mom’: Studies Suggest the Series Lowered Teen Birth Rates

On December 8, 2009, MTV launched Teen Mom, a reality show that told the stories of four young mothers and the challenges they faced. The show has since gone on to feature other groups of teen mothers. It’s developed a huge following, with many fans and detractors. Some people say that showing the realities of these women’s lives helps teens realize that parenthood isn’t easy and fun. Others insist that making women stars for having babies before they can legally drink alcohol sends the wrong message. It turns out that both opinions may have some scientific support.

(L-R) Bristol Palin, Maci Bookout, and Farrah Abraham smiling in front of a black background
(L-R) Bristol Palin, Maci Bookout, and Farrah Abraham | Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

The origin of ‘Teen Mom’

Cosmopolitan explains that MTV first aired a show called 16 and Pregnant, following the pregnancies of six girls. When the show ended, producers wanted to continue their story, so Teen Mom was born. Four of the women from the original show were featured, Farrah Abraham, Maci Bookout, Catelynn Lowell, and Amber Portwood.

The show depicted the moms’ struggles, from the simple to traumatic problems. They faced difficulties with relationships, housing, substance abuse, arrests, and custody battles.

Larry Musnik, the executive producer, said that the gritty nature of the show was intentional. “Our show is a cautionary tale, presented without judgment, of what it’s like for each one of these people. There’s nothing glamorous about having an unplanned pregnancy that you’re not ready for. There’s nothing glamorous about having a miscarriage, or being in a custody battle with the father of your child, or the struggle to make money. We don’t even shoot on glamorous cameras!”

But did it work?

Did the show decrease teen birth rates?

RELATED: ‘Teen Mom’ Producers Have Had to Call Police and CPS On Cast Members

The New York Times reported that a study was published in 2014 by the National Bureau of Economic Research that addressed that question. Researchers looked at birth records ad television ratings, and they found that areas where more teens watched MTV programming had a greater decline in teen births than in other areas. The study also noted that there was a sharp increase in social media posts and internet searches about contraception when the show was broadcast. 

The paper’s authors argued that the show reduced birth rates among teens by 6%, which would have prevented 20,000 teen births in 2010 alone. This sounds like great news, but other experts aren’t convinced. 

Researchers aren’t so sure

According to Time, another study was released around the same time that seems to contradict the previous one. This study, done by researchers at Indiana University, suggested that Teen Mom helped to convince viewers that the life of teen parents was pretty good. It showed that teens who watched the show had unrealistically positive impressions of what parenthood was like.

However, researchers have pointed out that both studies are flawed. The first one only showed a correlation between watching MTV and birth rates; it doesn’t demonstrate that the show caused the change. The difference may be caused by something else, such as the fact that wealthier neighborhoods are more likely to have access to both cable television and medical care, including contraception. 

With the second study, researchers did not demonstrate that the teens’ rosy beliefs about parenthood had any impact on their likelihood of getting pregnant. They may think it looks easier than it is, but that doesn’t mean that they think it’s a good idea for them. 

The truth is that the teen pregnancy rate has been falling for decades, way before the start of Teen Mom. Many believe that drop is because of increased sex education and access to birth control. Whether Teen Mom has anything to do with that decrease or not remains to be seen.