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Kristof: TV lowers the birthrate (seriously)

In the struggle to break cycles of poverty, experts have been searching for decades for ways to lower America's astronomical birthrate among teenagers.

We've tried virginity pledges, condoms and sex education. And, finally, we have a winner, a tool that has been remarkably effective in cutting teenage births.

It's "16 and Pregnant," a reality show on MTV that has been a huge hit, spawning spinoffs like the "Teen Mom" franchise. These shows remind youthful viewers that babies cry and vomit, scream in the middle of the night and poop with abandon.

Tweets containing the words "birth control" increased by 23 percent on the day after each new episode of "16 and Pregnant," according to an analysis by Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland and Phillip B. Levine of Wellesley College. Those tweets, in turn, correlate to increased Google searches along the lines of "how get birth control pills."

Kearney and Levine find that regions with a higher audience for "16 and Pregnant" and the "Teen Mom" franchise had more of a drop in teenage births. Overall, their statistical analysis concludes that the shows reduced teenage births by 5.7 percent, or 20,000 fewer teenage births each year. That's one birth averted every half-hour.

To put that achievement in context, I've been fulminating about the teenage birthrate for years, and I don't think I've averted a single birth.

Because abortion rates fell at the same time, the reduced birthrate appears to be the result principally of more use of contraception. It's also a reminder of the paramount need for clinics that offer free, long-acting contraception: When a teenage girl searches the web for birth control, let's make sure she finds solutions.

Kearney and Levine, both economists, are experts in why teenage birthrates are so high in America (one factor: Teenage births reflect poverty as well as transmit it to the next generation). U.S. girls are almost 10 times as likely to have babies as Swiss girls and more than twice as likely as Canadian girls. In no other developed country are teenagers as likely to get pregnant as the United States.

But here's the good news: Teenage birthrates have plunged by 52 percent since 1991 — one of America's great social policy successes, coming even as inequality and family breakdown have worsened. The steady drop in teenage births accelerated greatly beginning in 2009, when MTV began airing "16 and Pregnant."

"It's another reminder that great storytelling can be a powerful catalyst for change," says Stephen K. Friedman, the president of MTV.


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