Is watching bad TV shows a better way to increase usage of
birth control than a strict-no-nonsense factually-based news report? An
intriguing study by Ohio State University points to a conclusion that
exposing young adults to storylines about the difficulties of teen pregnancy
may be more effective in persuading
young women of their vulnerability to getting pregnant and thereby increasing
their use of birth control.
In a study at Ohio State University a researcher took 353 college students between the ages of 18 and 25 and showed half
a TV program developed by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and
the other half an episode of The OC where "high-school
students Ryan and Theresa faced the difficult consequences of an unintended
The programs were pre-tested with
other students, who agreed that they both had the same main message concerning
the difficulties of teen pregnancy.
Before watching the programs,
participants completed questionnaires concerning how often they used some form
of birth control if they were sexually active, and their intentions to use
birth control over the next year.
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Immediately after viewing the
programs, participants filled out questionnaires concerning how much they were
emotionally involved in the program, how much they identified with the
characters, another issues concerning their response to the programs they
Two weeks later, they were
contacted again and asked about their intentions to use birth control.
What is interesting is that the study showed an effect for
women but not for men. The study further showed that only those women who watched The OC episode
altered their concerns about getting pregnant.
The news-format program had no
effect on [the women’s] intentions to use birth control. But those who watched
The OC episode were more likely to report in two weeks that they planned on
taking steps to prevent pregnancy.
The findings revealed some of the
underlying mechanisms that made the TV drama persuasive to many women viewers.
Findings showed that viewers who
said they identified with the two main characters in The OC episode also felt,
when contacted two weeks later, that they were more vulnerable to an unplanned
pregnancy. That, in turn, led to greater intentions to use birth control.
"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," [said Emily Moyer-Gusé,
co-author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State
Feeling vulnerable was the key to
accepting birth control practices for the women in the study.
Why didn’t watching The OC affect the men in the study the
same way? One possible explanation is because it was badly written. The lead
researcher Moyer-Gusé said the men "didn’t like the program as much" and didn’t
"identify with the characters."
There are a couple things to keep in mind when thinking about
the results of this study. First that the study only asked two weeks later
about the participants’ "intentions to use birth control" which isn’t the same
thing as actual usage.
Second, the study used a TV show about teenagers and tested
it on college-age students, not actual teenagers. It would be interesting to
see if the different TV programming had a similar effect on different age
groups, both younger and older, and if the situations of the characters also
changed the impact.
Unplanned pregnancies for TV characters are rare in general,
when they do occur they tend to happen to adult characters and only portray "happy
results." For example CBS currently has an entire sitcom, Accidentally On
Purpose, that is based on the premise that a successful adult woman is faced with an
unplanned pregnancy (which she is keeping). The handful of
shows that do portray a teen pregnancy are even rarer, are almost always relegated to "very special episodes" and usually end in a miscarriage, rather
than a birth or abortion, lessening the "fear of vulnerability" such episodes
might inspire in viewers.
I hate to be a TV critic, but the The OC was not a series known, even before it was canceled, for its
verisimilitude. It’s interesting to wonder if watching say, Friday Night
Lights’ recent teen pregnancy storyline would have the same effect? What
16 and Pregnant?
The quality and type of the programming does seem to matter
in terms of message reception. People are often most receptive to retaining
information precisely when they feel they aren’t given
Participants, particularly women,
were more likely to be persuaded to use birth control if they felt the program
they watched didn’t have an overt safe-sex message.
Most people didn’t think The OC
episode was preaching the use of birth control, but those who did were much
less likely to increase their intentions to use birth control, the findings
This balance between overt messages and the more subtle memes
one picks up from watching TV is the cause of a cultural fight over TV
programming from all sides; feminist,
anti-feminist, pro-choice and anti-choice.
It would be great to see some follow up studies
explore whether men might also be affected if they were shown better quality TV
shows and whether teenagers themselves would have the same reaction as college-age