On Monday January 14, 2014 The National Bureau of Economic Research released a study concluding that the MTV programs 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom reduced the United States teen birth rate by 5.7 percent. The Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy is reluctant to give credence and attention to this claim. The study did not have an experimental design, which is needed to prove a causal relationship and the data and methods used to determine these findings have not been sufficiently reviewed by the scientific community nor published in a peer-reviewed journal. However, given the national reaction over the past week to the claims we feel it is incumbent upon us to issue the following statement.
Teen pregnancy is a complex issue and driven by many social inequities and environmental factors including, but not limited to, exposure to violence and trauma, poverty, and inadequate access to health care. We know the following three strategies prevent teen pregnancy in communities: 1.) Access to comprehensive sexual health education, 2.) Access to condoms and contraception for sexually active youth, and 3.) Opportunity and hope for a bright future. This is why we work in communities to help them develop and implement multi-component approaches that both prevent pregnancy and support teen parents.
One such initiative is the Alliance’s Youth First initiative in Holyoke and Springfield. This multi-year project, funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, uses a combination of the three things teens need. Over 100 partner agencies including schools, clinics, community-based youth programs, businesses, funders, and city agencies are providing sexuality education, clinical services, and working together to create a supportive, hopeful community where young people can thrive—whatever their parenting status.
The credit for declines in the teen birth rate must go to young people and the many dedicated health providers and organizations working to provide youth with the information, contraception and opportunity they need to make healthy decisions. Today’s young people are doing a better job of avoiding pregnancy and postponing parenthood than any other generation before them. The Massachusetts birth rate in 2012 was the lowest on record, at 14.1 births per 1,000 young women ages 15–19. This represents a decrease of 59.8% (over 50%) since the peak in 1990. The decline in teen birth rates nationally since the 1990s was almost exclusively due to more young people using the most effective methods of contraception. Among youth ages 18–19, the decline was due entirely to better contraceptive use. Among youth ages 15–17, 77% of the decline was due to better contraceptive use and a decrease in sexual activity resulted in 23% of the decline. Analysis by the Guttmacher Institute concludes that youth today are:
- Using contraception more consistently;
- Choosing the most effective methods (such as IUDs and implants) more often; and
- Using dual methods (hormonal contraception plus condoms) more frequently.
While we do not have detailed analysis of the reasons for the decline at a state level, Massachusetts youth sexual activity rates have not changed significantly from the 1990s, so we believe the decline in Massachusetts to be due to the same increased use of contraception seen nationally.
While deemed “reality TV shows,” these programs do not capture the wide range of real stories teen parents in our country have to tell, nor do they recognize the stories of shame and stigma attached to sex and teen parenthood that run deep in the American culture. Using the lives of teen parents as a “cautionary tale” ultimately does not serve young people well. It harms expectant and parenting teens, reinforces stereotypes that disempower young people, and ignores the complex inequities that lead to disparate teen pregnancy rates among marginalized youth.
Viewing reality shows about teen pregnancy could indeed have an influence on a teen’s knowledge about pregnancy and parenthood, perception of risk (the belief that “it can happen to me”), values and opinions and lead them to search for more information on how to avoid pregnancy. But we would never expect a TV show to take the place of access to information, contraception, and instilling hope in young people for their futures. The claims made by the study also trivialize the complex issues surrounding teen pregnancy and the many organizations working to ensure young people have access to the education, opportunity and the resources they need to make healthy decisions.
 Santelli, J., Lindberg, L.D., Finer, L. and Singh, S. (2007, January). Explaining recent declines in adolescent pregnancy in the United States: The contribution of abstinence and improved contraceptive use. American Journal of Public Health Vol. 97, No. 1. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1716232/pdf/0970150.pdf on January 21, 2014.