Books are my first media love, but at times I can definitely be a screen media junkie. I still drop Mean Girls references even though the movie is a decade old because I know the limit on those references does not exist. I will also admit that I once watched five straight hours of Community on Hulu Plus. So even though the reality TV show 16 and Pregnant aired on MTV is not my idea of “quality entertainment,” I am not surprised at the recent findings from the National Bureau of Economic Research that highlighted the show’s contribution to lower teen pregnancy rates. According to the report, 16 and Pregnant increased the number of searches and tweets about birth control and abortion, which the authors argue ultimately led to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births in the 18 months after it was introduced.
Fusing information and entertainment is not a new idea. (You don’t really think Aesop was inserting those morals for fun, do you?) Entertainment education through TV and radio has been used as a health-communication tool since the 1960s to promote everything from family planning to vaccine utilization. In South Africa, the television drama Tsha Tsha significantly increased condom use and HIV testing while decreasing the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. Similarly, a radio drama in Nepal helped train health workers to improve health care delivery. While entire entertainment-education programs are rare in the United States, there have been small examples of its use. Who can forget the Friends episode when Ross and Joey learned the effectiveness rate for condoms? (In case you missed that episode, they’re not 100 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. The CDC reports condoms are 82 percent effective as typically used by males, though it can be higher with correct use.) One study showed that youth recalled the information, and those who spoke with parents reported learning about condoms from the episode. But apart from these historical and international examples, there are elements of 16 and Pregnant that give it some credibility as a form of entertainment education.
Just as romantic comedies have two people who hate each other ending up in love, entertainment education has its own “formula.” Here’s how 16 and Pregnant fits:
While there are elements that research suggests could contribute to 16 and Pregnant’s positive impact, there is still more that can be done to improve its capabilities as a form of entertainment education. For one, the show lacks racial and ethnic diversity, perhaps missing an opportunity to reach some populations of teens at higher risk of pregnancy. Additionally, because the show focuses on teens who ultimately become pregnant, there’s less modeling of behaviors to prevent pregnancy, which would support the transition from knowledge and attitudes to actual practice. Fortunately, other entertainment education shows are working to fill this void. East Los High, a new drama series airing on Hulu, tracks the relationships, sexual decisions, and their consequences of several Latino teens in East Los Angeles. The shows’ developers have created a social media site that lets audience members further engage with the characters and learn about other health topics, such as healthy eating. It is already generating a following and fostering discussions among its audience. As these projects continue to develop, it is important that we also assess their impact to strengthen our understanding, especially as they incorporate new strategies like social media.
The takeaway from findings like those recently published about 16 and Pregnant is that our interventions don’t always have to look like traditional interventions. It is possible to innovate, and when we use all the avenues available to us, we can have great impacts. Case in point: my second week as a teaching fellow, three of my students walked up to me and said that I looked like Annie from Bad Girls Club, a reality TV show on the Oxygen Network. If youth are going to spend time watching these shows, shouldn’t we be figuring out how to use them to their advantage?
Kaylor Garcia, Public Health, Research and Communications Analyst