What music videos were to the MTV of yore, programs about single teenage mothers are to the MTV of today — a staple. The network’s franchise of reality shows about teenagers coping with out-of-wedlock-births, beginning with “16 and Pregnant” and including the spinoffs “Teen Mom” and “Teen Mom 2,” has been a runaway success.
It has given us such teen moms as Jenelle Evans, who alleged that her drug-abusing boyfriend beat her up, causing her to have a miscarriage. And Amber Portwood, who got out of jail on parole last year after serving time for drug charges — the latest in a string of troubles encompassing a suicide attempt and battery charges for allegedly beating up her boyfriend. And, of course, Farrah Abraham.
If you don’t know who Abraham is, you obviously haven’t been keeping up with Us Weekly. She didn’t tell her ex-boyfriend that he was the father before he was killed in a car accident. Her mother was charged with assault for hitting her. But never mind. Rocketed to D-list celebrity by her appearances on “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom,” she got two breast augmentations, performed in a sex video and has now graduated to appearing on the VH1 show “Couples Therapy.” In other words, she is living the American Dream of pointless notoriety.
For understandable reasons, the MTV franchise has been lambasted by cultural conservatives for glamorizing the lives of young women who have made desperately poor choices. But along come a couple of economists with a new paper on the social effects of the MTV shows to tell us that that gets it all wrong: The programs actually led, by their calculations, to a nearly 6 percent reduction in the teen birthrate between June 2009 and the end of 2010.
Their analysis of all the episodes of “16 and Pregnant” finds 47 pregnancies, and only four marriages prior to birth. Almost all the fathers stay involved throughout the pregnancy, but by the end of the episodes, half the relationships are very strained or over. About a quarter of the births are by C-section, and the young mothers experience “extensive sleep deprivation.” This is not “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” or “The Bachelorette.”
“Overall,” write the authors of the study, Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland and Phillip Levine of Wellesley College, “the realities of the lives of teen mothers are presented in ways that may have been unknown or difficult to imagine for other teens viewing the show.” According to their findings, getting a dose of the reality of teen child rearing — which means limited educational prospects and a high likelihood of poverty — changes the behavior of teens exposed to the shows.
There are two things to say about this result. One is that it vindicates the common-sensical belief that pop culture has an impact on how we live. The entertainment industry celebrates itself as important and brave, but when anyone suggests that its stupid and degrading output might influence how anyone thinks or behaves, it retreats to the “it’s just a TV show or movie” defense.
The other is that the trend toward ever-increasing out-of-wedlock child rearing needn’t be accepted as inevitable. If MTV has inadvertently stumbled on a highly credible way to make the case to teens that the life of a single teen parent is to be avoided, then surely there are other effective ways to spread the word about the struggles inherent to out-of-wedlock child rearing more generally. (Teens under 18 account for less than 8 percent of all out-of-wedlock births.)
As for MTV, it may create a mixed message. Another new study found that teenage viewers of the shows had unrealistically rosy views of single motherhood — perhaps because after the travails depicted on “16 and Pregnant,” a few high-profile teen moms like Farrah Abraham graduate to the tawdry satisfactions of minor celebrityhood. It’s safe to assume that nothing good comes from MTV, except by accident.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.