Study: Brazilian soap operas reduce fertility

Study: Brazilian soap operas reduce fertility

A study published by the International Center for Development at Harvard correlates the introduction of TV soap operas with falling fertility rates in Brazil.

What are the effects of television, and of role models portrayed in TV programs, on individual behavior? We focus on fertility choices in Brazil, a country where soap operas (novelas) portray families that are much smaller than in reality. We exploit differences in the timing of entry into different markets of Rede Globo, the network that has an effective monopoly on novelas production in this country. Using Census data for the period 1970-1991, we find that women living in areas covered by the Globo signal have significantly lower fertility. The effect is strongest for women of lower socioeconomic status and for women in the central and late phases of their fertility cycle, consistent with stopping behavior. The result is robust to placebo treatments and does not appear to be driven by selection in Globo entry. Finally, we provide suggestive evidence that novelas, and not just television, affected individual choices. First, people living in areas covered by the signal were more likely to name their children after novela characters. Second, entry of a network that relied on imported shows did not have a significant impact on fertility.

So it is the telenovelas specifically and not just television in general that correlates with lower fertility and they believe it is also responsible for smaller family sizes. I’m curious about the effect that Catholic belief has on the soap opera addicts. I’m no statistician so skimming the paper itself didn’t shed any light on it for me, even though they mention Catholicism a few times, but it seems that they didn’t examine whether the individuals’ beliefs in the mainly Catholic country were a factor. They do say that the effect is mainly on women in their middle to late-childbearing years and so is not generally a factor in delayed first childbirth.

The reason the telenovelas should have such an effect, the study suggests, is because they “portrayed a reality with which Brazilian viewers could more easily identify.” If the viewers see someone like themselves or how they imagine themselves to be, they transfer that reality onto theirs and so they more readily name their children after characters in the shows or pattern their families after the TV families.

What’s most chilling is the researchers’ conclusion that television could be used to indoctrinate the lower classes into whatever message the media chooses to advance:

Our work suggests that programs targeted to the culture of the local population have the potential of
reaching an overwhelming amount of people at very low costs, and could thus be used by policymakers to convey important social and economic messages (e.g. about HIV/AIDS prevention, children’s education, the rights of minorities, etc.).

Or perhaps a generally contraceptive message to deal with so-called “overpopulation.”

Meanwhile, the media elites in our country continue to proclaim that children and teens viewing sexually explicit and/or violent TV and movies and video games has absolutely no effect on behavior (except for smoking, of course.) I guess you have to be a poor, middle-aged Brazilian housewife to be affected.


Written by
Domenico Bettinelli