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'16 and Pregnant' Provides Effective Sex-Ed

I admit I have never watched the shows "16 and Pregnant," "Teen Mom" (in the original incarnation, or 2, or 3), or similar programs of yesteryear like "Fifteen and Pregnant" or "Too Young to be a Dad." But my students--or at least their age-group peers--are watching, according to a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that the airing of "16 and Pregnant" correlated with a 6% nationwide drop in teen pregnancies. That's approximately 20,000 births in the year and a half after the show began airing in 2009.

When I started teaching in 2003, teen pregnancies seemed more prevalent than they do today. This may have been because I was younger, and the students felt more comfortable telling me very personal things than they do today; it also might have been that I was teaching in a bigger school, thus, there were numerically more pregnancies (as there were numerically more students). I remember quite a few of these incidents, mostly talking with girls after class about options for prenatal health, about supportive family dynamics for raising a child, and about finishing school. Though I could do Google searches and pick up pamphlets in the nurse's office as well as anyone, I always felt ill-equipped for these discussions. It seemed like anything I could say post-facto had limited utility, because the "damage" was already done: These girls' lives would be irrevocably changed by becoming parents in their teens, their prospects for higher education and career potential diminished by the demands of raising a child--let alone the fact that they were children themselves.

In recent years, there certainly have seemed to be fewer teen pregnancies. Whether this is because I don't get to hear about them as much, or because there are actually fewer in our schools, I couldn't say for sure, but the results of this study seem to bear out the conclusion that something--be it "16 and Pregnant" or anything else--is curbing the tide of teen pregnancies significantly.

I'm not a huge fan of reality TV, but I do like results. At first glance, I'd probably have been critical of programs like "16 and Pregnant" for appearing to glorify teen pregnancy by making it a cute premise for a show, and thus setting a bad example for teens like my students. In short, I'd have said it was garbage without even watching. I now see that this might have been a short-sighted viewpoint on my part.

If there in indeed a causal relationship between the airing of the show and the precipitous drop in teen pregnancy, then this is something worth investigating in order to replicate the results, both for further campaigns against teen pregnancy and for other issues having to do with teen health and well-being. Internet searches and social media "memes" about topics relating to teen pregnancy and contraception spiked during the time of the study, indicating that the show motivated kids to become more informed about these issues. While traditional sex-education in health class does have its value, if "16 and Pregnant" pushes kids to seek out information themselves, this is a plus. Additionally, the show--which follows teen moms in the first year of their children's lives--paints a picture of what such a life would actually look like, which presumably pushes teenage viewers to truly consider the consequences of unprotected sex.

Anyway, that's a little bit of good news connected to a seemingly unlikely source. Good work to the producers of this TV show for ultimately having a positive influence on teens; now perhaps the success of this program can be leveraged towards similar public health initiatives. And, I have one less reason to tell my students to quit watching television all the time (though I probably will still say that, if only so they'll read more).

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