Since the 1950s, teen pregnancies have slowly been declining; yet even so, the U.S. teen birth rate remains one of the highest among industrialized nations. Aside from the increased health risks and hardships for teen moms and their babies, public costs generated from teen births are estimated at nearly $11 billion each year.

And although nearly 97 percent of American teenagers receive formal sex education before they are 18, it’s taken a reality show to really make a dent in the statistics, according to a new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The researchers set out to explore how media affects adolescent attitudes and outcomes; specifically, they examined the super popular MTV franchise, "16 and Pregnant" and its spin-off "Teen Mom." The reality television series follow pregnant teenagers during their pregnancy and early motherhood. 

What they found is surprising. Through a detailed and specific analysis of Nielsen television ratings and birth records, they estimate that the shows may have prevented more than 20,000 births to teenage mothers in 2010. All told, they say the programs reduced teen childbirths by nearly six percent.

“It’s thrilling,” Sarah S. Brown, the chief executive of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, told The New York Times. “People just don’t understand how influential media is in the lives of young people.”

The two shows are among MTV’s most widely-viewed; and many of the mothers have become celebrities because of the programs. Yet while some conservative groups have taken the shows to task for glamorizing teen pregnancy, the study shows otherwise.

Melissa S. Kearney, the director of the Hamilton Project, and Phillip B. Levine of Wellesley College, poured over birth records and Nielsen ratings and concluded that teen births declined more rapidly in areas where teenagers were watching more MTV programming. Other experts who have reviewed the findings say the results seem solid.

“The assumption we’re making is that there’s no reason to think that places where more people are watching more MTV in June 2009, would start seeing an excess rate of decline in the teen birthrate, but for the change in what they were watching,” Levine said.

The paper also puts forth how the shows may have affected the rates. For one, they found that activity about contraception on social media and Internet searches on the topic increased notably when the shows were being broadcast. (For example, there was a spike in people asking about birth control on Twitter while the show was on.) Others note that the programs have broken down some of the taboos and gives teens an opening to talk more about the topic.

The National Campaign said that the study offered evidence that the shows could act as powerful teaching tools. “You can have all the sex-ed you want," Brown said, “but if you can say, ‘Could that happen to me?’ That brings a reality and a heightened connection that is very significant for teenagers.”

CNN talks to one of the paper's authors in the clip below:

Related stories on MNN: