Bring up the subject of teen pregnancy at a cocktail party and three things are likely to happen.
1) Any men hanging around will vanish on the pretext of getting another Scotch.
2) Among the women, one will shake her head over how many more "babies" are having "babies" than in the past.
3) Another woman will then shrug and ask, "What do you expect, given all the sex kids see on TV?"
And off the conversation will go, assuming -- wrongly -- that teen pregnancies and teen births are on the rise and -- also wrongly -- that it's the fault of the media, in particular entertainment media.
In fact, research has shown that teens are having fewer babies. And a very solid study released today suggests that one reason for that is the positive influence of some television shows -- in particular in this study, the programs 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom. Both are produced by the network that older Americans love to hate: MTV.
The teen pregnancy rate in this country has fallen 44 percent since the 1990s; the teen birth rate 52 percent. Of particular interest to the two researchers who headed this particular study -- economists of all people -- were the months following the launch of MTV's 16 and Pregnant, a reality show about high school moms and their babies aimed at, and very popular among, teenage girls. Could the challenges facing TV's real moms have an impact on young viewers?
The answer is yes, said Melissa Schettini Kearney at the University of Maryland and Phillip B. Levine at Wellesley College, writing in the journal of the National Bureau of Economic Research. Using information from television's Nielsen ratings, Google, Twitter and federal birth data, they found that online searches and tweets about birth control and abortion, presumably by teens, rose dramatically in the 18 months following the debut of 16 and Pregnant in June 2009 and later, two spinoff shows, Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2.
In a second finding that is bound to be controversial among other social scientists, they reported that 16 and Pregnant led to an almost six percent reduction in teen births in the 18 months following the show's debut in June 2009. "This can explain around one-third of the total decline in teen births over that period," they wrote. Teen abortions have been steadily declining since 1990, suggesting that the decline is more likely due to a reduction in pregnancies than more abortions.
Saying that a particular show caused a change in behavior, as opposed to contributed to it or shows a strong correlation to it, is an almost unheard of assertion for social scientists, in particular economists, to make, according to a social scientist familiar with the study.
"This study does seem to have shown a measurable, significant decline (in teen births)," this scientist said. "Exactly how big a decline I'm not sure." The authors do not know, for example, what the birth rate would have been if there were no 16 and Pregnant during the period they studied, the source said.
The study is what is called a working paper, which means that unlike a professional journal article, it has not been reviewed by other social scientists who study teen pregnancy. It's a good bet that other researchers will study it closely and perhaps be inspired to replicate or dispute the findings.
In the meantime, the report, which measured teen births, not teen pregnancies, raises important questions. How much of the drop in births is due to contraception that is slowly becoming easier to acquire, easier to use and more effective? Sex education programs have increased substantially in number and sophistication; with what effect?
If shows like 16 and Pregnant motivate teens to think and talk seriously with their friends, partners and parents about sex and pregnancy, that's a good thing. Teens need -- indeed are hungry for -- deeper knowledge about sex, pregnancy and pregnancy prevention.
They also need encouragement. They need to know what the study suggests, that increasingly more teens like them are choosing wisely not to have sex and if they do, to protect themselves. They need to know that as a result, the teen birth rate declined nine percent in 2010, the largest single-year decline since the 1940s, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, and that it is still falling.
Then they need to tell their parents.