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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOANNA WEISS

Sex ed from ‘Teen Mom’

Maci Bookout holds her son in a scene from “Teen Mom” in 2009.

file 2009/AP Photo/MTV

Maci Bookout holds her son in a scene from “Teen Mom” in 2009.

The new season of “Teen Mom 2” premiered on MTV this week. You may know this from the breathless coverage in OK! Magazine (“Teen Mom Week in Review: The Teen Mom 2 Cast Hangs Out in NYC, Maci Wears Booty Shorts to a Wedding and More”).

Or maybe you’ve heard because the show is now officially a tool of public health. A study released this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research declares that MTV’s “Teen Mom” franchise — which also includes the original “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant” — had a measurable effect on reducing teen pregnancy rates.

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There has been some fury about the study’s findings. I get the backlash from groups that have worked hard to combat teen pregnancy through education. I get the frustration from non-televised teen moms, who think the show exploits and stigmatizes its stars.

But I think we should take a deep breath and examine what the study really says: That a show on MTV can drive teen behavior in positive ways. That doesn’t mean we should turn over sex education to a cable network. But it does mean we might want to look to the show for lessons about how to talk to teens.

The study came about as a way to explain a baffling statistic, said Phillip Levine, a Wellesley College economist, who co-wrote the report with University of Maryland economist Melissa Kearney. Since 1991, teen pregnancy rates nationwide had been declining by about 2.5 percent per year. But around 2009, the drop suddenly grew more dramatic: about 7.5 percent per year.

“You just don’t see numbers like that,” said Levine, who has long researched the economics of reproductive health. The usual-suspect explanations — new types of contraception, new forms of sex ed — didn’t seem to fit. A poor economy was a likely factor. But he and Kearney also stumbled across a press release from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, crediting “16 and Pregnant.”

So they ran the numbers, analyzing Nielsen ratings and related tweets and searches. They cross-referenced teen birth data and did some regression-analysis jujitsu. (It’s what economists do.) And they concluded that — while the economy played a role — the show itself caused a 5.7 percent reduction in teen pregnancy rates.

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Some have questioned, with good reason, whether correlation really is causation. Still, it’s hard to underestimate the power of the “Teen Mom” reach. Tuesday’s premiere was the number one show on all of television for viewers between 12 and 34. Which makes it worth asking: What makes the show stick?

It could be that breathless tabloid coverage of booty shorts. But it also could be the trappings of reality TV itself. Levine, who hadn’t watched “Teen Mom” before he started the study, said he expected heart-to-hearts between girls and their boyfriends, philosophical discussions about contraception. Instead, he said, “a lot of the show is about conflict” — between a girl and her boyfriend, a girl and her ex, a girl and her parents, a girl and herself.

Conflict is the engine of reality TV. So to keep the drama going, the “Teen Mom” shows often chronicle a backslide. This is a problem for Natasha Vianna of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy.

Vianna was pregnant at 17. She’s 25 now, with an 8-year-old daughter, and thriving. When the “Teen Mom” shows first aired, she told me, “I was excited to feel like teen moms had a place in society.” But the show soon felt like all cautionary tale and no hope: inviting viewers to feel superior, suggesting “that young parents are not capable of being amazing caregivers.”

Still, Vianna keeps up with episodes, because the teens she works with talk about it all the time. This a not-unsubstantial contribution: Suck teens in with bickering and drama, and you keep a taboo subject at the top of their minds. You also build a bridge to deeper, useful conversations, about motherhood and healthy relationships.

Data show that girls have better outcomes when they can talk about sex with trusted, nonjudgmental adults, said Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who has worked to develop comprehensive sex ed for Boston schools. If “Teen Mom” turned out to be a supplemental text, would that be so bad? The answer isn’t to shut it out, but to watch it very closely. And discuss.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.

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