MTV’s ’16 and Pregnant’ Gets No Credit for Declining Teen Birth Rates

The decline in birth rates in 2009 isn’t a story about young women learning about life with a baby from a reality show. It is a story about young women who know all too well what life with a baby is like.

Last month, when the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported the birth rate of teenage girls had fallen by 6% between 2008 and 2009, MTV issued a press release claiming the show ‘16 and Pregnant’ contributed to the decline.  Does MTV truly deserve credit for that?

I love looking at data because it always tells me a story. While the CDC birth data has not all been released in its entirety, the preliminary data tells me this: The decline in birth rates in 2009 isn’t a story about young women learning about life with a baby from a reality show. It is a story about young women who know all too well what life with a baby is like. 

The biggest decline in teenage births is among women who already had at least one baby.

In 2009, 81% of teenage girls who gave birth were having their first child. The birth rate of those girls fell by 5%, which is a big decrease. Sixteen percent, however, gave birth to their second child and the birth rate for those girls fell by 7.5%. The biggest decline was among the group of girls giving birth to their third child. The birth rate for those girls fell by 8%. (Remarkably, 1,316 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 gave birth to their fourth child or higher in 2009. This represents a small fraction of those giving birth, but more than four kids…really?)

This decline in births after the first child was largest for white girls. Nine percent fewer white girls had their second baby in 2009, and 11% fewer had their third.

The dramatic variance in birth rates from one year to the next can probably be best explained by the poor state of the economy.

By the way, just in case you were wondering, white girls are far less likely to have more than one child in their teens than women of other races. Black and Hispanic girls combined make up about 34% of the population of teenage girls. Their share among teen moms who were having their first baby in 2009 was about 58%. This share increased with the number of children born. For example, black and Hispanic girls make up 66% of moms having their second child, 73% of those having their third, and 80% of those having four or more children.

It seems to me that if you want to explain racial differences in teen birth rates you need to look beyond the birth of one child.

None of this proves definitively that ’16 and Pregnant’ wasn’t responsible for the fall in teen birth rates. If the show was having an impact on the birth rate, thought, we would expect to see the greatest decline in women having their first baby. What does, however, prove that the show was not responsible is that ’16 and Pregnant’ didn’t go on the air until June, 2009. Either the producers of the show have no idea how long a pregnancy lasts, or they believe the show influenced girls to have an abortion rather than deliver a baby.

Abortion rates for 2009 haven’t been released yet but I don’t expect to see an MTV press release anytime soon taking credit for an increase in abortions.

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