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Reality show '16 and Pregnant' reduced teen births, study says

A new study concludes that the MTV show "16 and Pregnant" reduced teenage births by nearly 6% in the year and a half after the show started airing, countering concerns that the popular show has glamorized teen motherhood.

Teen motherhood has plummeted over the last two decades, hitting a record low last year. Advocacy groups believe sex education and the economic downturn have helped bring down the numbers, but researchers had yet to examine whether pop culture was also steering teens away from parenthood.

By analyzing Google searches, Twitter and Nielsen ratings and comparing them to teen birth rates in different parts of the country, researchers from Wellesley College and the University of Maryland concluded that the hit show also had a powerful role in reducing teen births.

In a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, they found that areas that had higher MTV viewership when "16 and Pregnant" started airing had faster drops in teen births. The reality show also spurred more Google searches and tweets about birth control, hinting at what teens were thinking.

All in all, the study concluded that the show ultimately led to a 5.7% reduction in teen births, which accounted for nearly a third of the drop in teenage births between June 2009 and the end of 2010.

Television is "a pretty powerful mechanism" for showing teens what parenthood is like, said Wellesley College economics professor Phillip Levine, coauthor of the study. "You can have a middle-aged teacher telling teens about it in a classroom -- or you can see firsthand how people's lives change."

Though the show seems to have turned teens away from parenthood, the larger reason behind the "staggering drop" in birth rates was the recession, researchers found. Teen abortion rates fell during the same period that births were dropping, suggesting that increased abortion wasn't behind the change.

The MTV show and others like it “should be seen as key parts of 21st century sex education,” National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy CEO Sarah Brown said in a statement Monday.

“This exciting new research from respected economists … provides powerful new evidence of how media can shape behavior in positive ways,” Brown said.

The New York Times, which had access to the paper before it was released Monday, reported that other researchers had reviewed the study and found its conclusions to be sound. One called the findings "substantial."

"Overall I think the study is really rigorously done," Northwestern University associate professor Diane Schanzenbach told the Los Angeles Times. "And I  think it's going to make an impact in the field."

Earlier studies have raised concerns about the messages sent by such shows. For instance, one survey of 185 Midwestern high school students found that more frequent viewers of "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom" were more likely to think teen mothers could easily find child care and complete high school.

"The more often they watched these shows, the more likely they were to subscribe to the idea that it was pretty easy being a teen mom," said Indiana University Bloomington assistant professor Nicole Martins, coauthor of that study. She had yet to read the new study, but found the results surprising.

Martins also questioned whether the results would be the same if researchers had examined the effects of a different show, saying that "16 and Pregnant" showed more of the turmoil surrounding parenthood than other, similar shows.

Levine was confident that the study showed a real and powerful cause-and-effect. "We're not basing our conclusions on attitudes," he said. "We actually have behavior we're measuring."

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Twitter: @latimesemily

Emily.Alpert@latimes.com

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