I want my MTV (to be more scientifically-minded)

If you’ve ever had one of those lazy, hung-over days spent flicking between inane programming on satellite TV, chances are you will have come across […]

If you’ve ever had one of those lazy, hung-over days spent flicking between inane programming on satellite TV, chances are you will have come across MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom. These reality series were designed to target the relatively high rates of teenage pregnancy in the United States by presenting a realistic portrait of what it is actually like to be a teenage mother. By providing an honest portrayal of the huge hurdles teenage mums face, it was thought that these shows would make teenagers be more careful in their sex life.

However, not everyone was so certain that these programmes would discourage young people from having sex (or at least sex without contraception). Indeed, some reviewers have noted how the programmes’ presentation of teenage motherhood seems to suggest that having a baby can be a great way to develop as a person. Others point out that there is a certain kind of celebrity lifestyle that seems to now surround the mothers from the shows – and their boyfriends – which could seem appealing to impressionable young people. Indeed, the series’ websites are full of stories about who has just got married or had nude pictures leaked.

However, without systematically investigating the attitudes and behaviours associated with watching these programmes, their social impact – whether good or bad – cannot properly be assessed. A couple of recent studies have therefore done just this. Two years ago, a paper showed that teenagers who were exposed to three episodes of 16 and Pregnant were more likely to believe that their peers wanted to get pregnant and that pregnancy helped secure long term relationships. A study published this month by Wright and colleagues sought to determine whether these seemingly negative effects of the programmes also extended to viewers’ sexual behaviour.

The investigators asked female university students how many times they had seen 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, and whether they had had sex in the last year. They found that across all participants, an increase in the number of times that a subject had watched the programmes was associated with an increased likelihood of having had sex. However, the situation was more complicated than this. For the subset of participants who had received a lot of communication about sex from their fathers while they were growing up, the opposite was true: an increase in the number of times viewing these programmes was associated with a decreased likelihood of sexual activity. That is, the programmes appeared to be having their desired effect, but only for a select group of participants who already had talked a lot about sex with their parents. For everyone else, these programmes appeared to be having the opposite effect.

Wright et al.’s study has been getting a fair amount of press attention, but it has pretty major limitations. Perhaps most bizarrely, the measure of interest was simply whether participants had recently had sex. It is not clear that MTV’s campaign was aimed at promoting abstinence, but rather decreasing risky sexual behaviour, and it seems that something like the incidence of contraceptive use might have been a more realistic behaviour to measure. Additionally, it is impossible to conclude from the study whether watching the TV shows made participants more likely to have sex – it could just as easily have been that there was some other, unrecorded characteristic which predisposed participants both to watching the shows and to having sex.

However, these criticisms are missing the point somewhat. While Wright and colleagues’ study is not a shining example of behavioural science, it is a step in the right direction, and it makes it clear that MTV’s attempts at instituting social change are often ineffective or even counter-productive. It seems that MTV’s programmes are just one example of many such initiatives which may intuitively seem appropriate, but which are not properly validated or based on evidence. Without applying the simple principles of science to objectively test the predictions made about these initiatives, it cannot be known whether the interventions are having the desired effect. And it is not just public service broadcasting that can be of uncertain value. The importance of scientific testing of governmental social policy is also receiving increased recognition, something I have written about before and which has been argued for far more cogently elsewhere. Relying more on the tools of science to inform our attempts at social progress will help to create effective, evidence-driven initiatives.

About Matthew Warren

Matthew is at Balliol College, studying for a DPhil in the Department of Psychiatry, and is a former editor of Bang! magazine. You can follow him on Twitter, @mattbwarren