Television: Is there anything it can’t do?
After decades of being slammed by bluenoses, bureaucrats, and Bruce Springsteen for sexing up and dumbing down the masses, it turns out that the small screen has accomplished what no amount of promise rings, Twilight movies, or mandatory banana-on-a-condom classes have managed to do: reduce the number of teenage births.
At least that’s what the authors of a widely discussed new study say. In “Media Influences on Social Outcomes: The Impact of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant on Teen Childbearing,” (available online for the low, low price of $5.00 from the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists Melissa S. Kearney (University of Maryland) and Phillip B. Levine (Wellesley College) write “The introduction of 16 and Pregnant along with its partner shows, Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2, led teens to noticeably reduce the rate at which they give birth.” According to their calculations, the shows are responsible for “a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births in the 18 months following [their] introduction.”
You’ve gotta love economists with their ultra-precise calculations of inherently vague social situations (who doesn’t want to be able to say with utter confidence (PDF) that, for example, the Budget Control Act of 2011 will result in “the loss of 1,006,320 direct, indirect and induced jobs”?). En route to their conclusion, Kearney and Levine concoct an inventive if not fully compelling methodology in which they track Google searches and tweets for terms related to teen pregnancy, contraceptives, and the like around airings of the MTV shows.
You can almost hear the programmers at MTV crying out like Viacom’s answer to Oskar Schindler that they could have done so much more to prevent just one more teen pregnancy! Indeed, who knows how many more births they might have prevented had they not featured Farrah Abraham, who went to star in the porno Backdoor Teen Mom, which doubtless increased sexual activity among teens?
The study is far less interesting for the specific claims it makes about teen birth rates than it is as a variation on persistent attitudes toward cultural production and consumption redolent of Frankfurt School anxieties over media’s impact on the proletariat. In many ways, “Media Influences on Social Outcomes” is simply the latest echo of the idea that TV, music, movies, novels, and the like don’t simply move audiences to laughter, tears, or contemplation but compel them to act in particular ways.
The main difference here is that rather than fretting over increases in violent or sexual activity after watching TV, the authors claim to document the most uplifting effect the boob tube has had since Fonzie got his library card on Happy Days and supposedly spurred a 500 percent increase in application requests nationwide. “Typically,” write Kearney and Levine, “public concern addresses potential negative influences of media exposure, but this study finds it may have positive influences as well… We find that media has the potential to be a powerful driver of social outcomes.” In more doctrinaire versions of Frankfurt School analysis, the producers of content are drivers and audience members are, well, just passengers along for the ride. To their credit, Kearney and Levine aren’t nearly so deterministic, even though they are quick to ascribe causative power to a particular set of programs.
In 2002’s Is Art Good for Us?, University of Tulsa professor Joli Jensen refers to this sort of thinking as an “instrumental view of culture.” It presumes “that art is an instrument like medicine or a toxin that can be injected into us and transform us.” This view, says Jensen, “is very tempting because if certain kinds of culture cause bad things in society, then you can change that culture and fix society.” The instrumental view implies formal or informal commissars that must oversee and direct cultural production, making sure more “good” art is made. After all, you are what you read, or watch, or hear. Morally suspect art leads to crime, chaos, and bad behavior.
Jensen contrasts the instrumental view of culture with what she dubs “the expressive view,” which proceeds from “John Dewey's understanding of culture as a way that all of us, even those of us who are not in a special guardian class, understand and symbolically engage the world.” The expressive view stresses that “we all participate in creating the meaning of a particular piece of work.”
Especially in an age of DIY and on-demand cultural production and consumption—an age in which even the least engaged or conscious individual is able to decontextualize and recontextualize any piece of art in a way that would have absolutely blown Walter Benjamin’s mind (PDF)—the expressive view provides a more compelling and nuanced understanding of how we engage culture. Culture isn’t something that happens to us or programs us like robots. It’s something that emerges from the interplay between creators and audiences.
The expressive view of culture helps explain why despite massive increases in depictions of violence and sex across every possible mode of expression over the past several decades, all indicators of problematic social behavior has declined. If popular culture really compelled us to act one way or another, that couldn’t be true. In fact, there is essentially no direct effect of a given show or song on us in terms of any particular behavior. The fault (or the credit) lies not in our TV shows but in ourselves.
This is true even for teens, where arrests for violent crime are half of what they were 20 years ago and where teen sexual activity continues to drop. Despite easy access to ubiquitous and free online porn, only around 43 percent of girls and 42 percent of boys engage in sex before graduating high school. In 1988, the corresponding percentages were 51 percent and 60 percent. As Kearney and Levine themselves note, the teen birth rate—around 29 girls per 1,000 between the ages of 15 and 19 give birth—is about half of what it was two decades ago. The decline is even more pronounced if you start the trend line four or more decades back.)
In a 2012 paper titled “Explaining Recent Trends in the U.S. Teen Birth Rate (PDF),” Kearney and Levine note that explicitly didactic interventions into teen pregnancy issues such as “abstinence only education or mandatory sex education” had no role in the long-term decline. Rather, they argue that reductions in welfare benefits and access to birth control via Medicaid account for 12 percent of the decline since 1991. More important, “weak labor market conditions, as measured by the unemployment rate, do appear to lead to lower teen birth rates and can account for 28 percent of the decline in teen birth rates since the Great Recession began.”
In the new study, they reiterate that a rotten economy tends to drive down birth rates: “When the labor market is weak,” they write, “teens (like older women) respond by having fewer children. The effect is rather large as well; a one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate reduces the teen childbearing rate by about 2 percent. This means that the five point increase in the unemployment rate that the U.S. experienced in the Great Recession would generate a 10 percentage point reduction in teen childbearing.”
While attributing a bigger share of the decline in the teen birth rate to a crap economy rather than low-rent reality TV shows is obviously less likely to garner New York Times coverage, it also demonstrates how the expressive understanding of culture works.
Individuals—even the disproportionately low-income and low-educated girls who are most likely to have babies as teens—exercise a tremendous amount of agency in deciding when and under what circumstances they became a mother (or a father). This decline in birth rates is in fact a global phenomenon, one well-documented by Jonathan V. Last in What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. In every developed economy and even most undeveloped countries, he observes, birth rates have plummeted over the past several decades. It turns out that when women have access to more education and better employment possibilities, they have fewer children and have them later in life.
The rise in legal equality and generally cheap and readily available birth control plays a major role too. Men are more careful too, for a wide variety of reasons. Declines in birth rates, Last writes, are “the result of an enormous, interconnected web of factors that constitute something like the entire framework of modern life.” The ultimate upbeat message is that, relative to the past, even the poorest women among us have more choices than ever before. That’s why they are choosing to have fewer kids—not because they finally got their MTV.