TV as birth control

Believe it or not, dramas like "The O.C." could prevent unwanted pregnancies

Published February 10, 2010 5:31PM (EST)

It turns out TV actually might be good for young women, according to a new study. Well, OK, a few caveats: That's assuming 1) It doesn't fry their brains first, 2) They watch entertaining and realistic dramas, as opposed to, say, "For the Love of Ray J 2," and 3) One considers preventing unwanted pregnancies and STDs to be a "good" thing. 

The Ohio State University study surveyed 353 undergraduates before and after they watched one of two half-hour programs that painted an unglamorous portrait of teen pregnancy. Half the 18- to 25-year-olds watched a relevant episode of a little show, perhaps you remember it, called "The O.C." The other half watched a news program produced by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, which interviewed teen parents about the difficulty of their predicament.

The result? "Females showed an increase in safe sex intentions after exposure to the dramatic program, but not the nonnarrative program." It seems basic human empathy is largely responsible: The women who identified with the "O.C." characters reported feeling more vulnerable to an unplanned pregnancy even weeks later and thus were more likely to plan to protect themselves. "Many of the women participants were able to put themselves in the place of the characters and sense they could end up in a similar situation if they weren’t careful," Emily Moyer-Gusé, coauthor of the study, said in a press release. 

There's no surprise here. Stories can be incredibly powerful in shaping human behavior -- think of religious parables and fairy tales. But it hardly has to be in the literary canon to be influential: I've written before about how soap operas starring modern, independent women have been associated with an increase in egalitarian attitudes in remote Indian villages. It's easy to forget amid the onslaught of "Real Housewives" spinoffs and "Jersey Shore" marathons, but entertainment can be positively educational.

There is a rather surprising part of the study, however: The news program had no noticeable effect on young men and the "O.C." episode actually "decreased male participants’ safe sex intentions." Moyer-Gusé guesses this was a factor of women finding "The O.C." more entertaining and relatable, and that men could be similarly influenced by a show that better spoke to them. Still, I find it shocking that a show dramatizing the stresses of teen pregnancy would actually discourage them from planning to have safe sex; it's an unnerving reminder that influence isn't always positive.

I would love to see a similar study involving reality TV shows like MTV's "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom." You would think young viewers would identify with the shows' stars, seeing as they're real-life teenagers. And, while I'm dreaming up work for other people to do: I'd also like to see a study of the extreme scare tactics employed by anti-teen pregnancy PSAs like the one I wrote about last month, and whether they're undermined by their overt moralizing.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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Broadsheet Sex Education Teenagers Violence Against Women