Evidence: TV shows can lower fertility rates

An article about the cultural power of television discusses several studies that show TV programs can lower fertility rates:

Several years ago, a trio of researchers working for the Inter-American Development Bank set out to help solve a sociological mystery. Brazil had, over the course of four decades, experienced one of the largest drops in average family size in the world, from 6.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.3 children in 2000. What made the drop so curious is that, unlike the Draconian one-child policy in China, the Brazilian government had in place no policy to limit family size. (It was actually illegal at some point to advertise contraceptives in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.) What could explain such a steep drop? The researchers zeroed in on one factor: television.

Television spread through Brazil in the mid-sixties. But it didn’t arrive everywhere at once in the sprawling country. Brazil’s main station, Globo, expanded slowly and unevenly. The researchers found that areas that gained access to Globo saw larger drops in fertility than those that didn’t (controlling, of course, for other factors that could affect fertility). It was not any kind of news or educational programming that caused this fertility drop but exposure to the massively popular soap operas, or novelas, that most Brazilians watch every night. The paper also found that areas with exposure to television were dramatically more likely to give their children names shared by novela characters.

Novelas almost always center around four or five families, each of which is usually small, so as to limit the number of characters the audience must track. Nearly three quarters of the main female characters of childbearing age in the prime-time novelas had no children, and a fifth had one child. Exposure to this glamorized and unusual (especially by Brazilian standards) family arrangement “led to significantly lower fertility”—an effect equal in impact to adding two years of schooling.

In a 2009 study, economists Robert Jensen and Emily Oster detected a similar pattern in India. A decade ago, cable television started to expand rapidly into the Indian countryside, where deeply patriarchal views had long prevailed. But not all villages got cable television at once, and its random spread created another natural experiment. This one yielded extraordinary results. Not only did women in villages with cable television begin bearing fewer children, as in Brazil, but they were also more able to leave their home without their husbands’ permission and more likely to disapprove of husbands abusing their wives, and the traditional preference for male children declined. The changes happened rapidly, and the magnitude was “quite large”—the gap in gender attitudes separating villages introduced to cable television from urban areas shrunk by between 45 and 70 percent. Television, with its more progressive social model, had changed everything.

Four quick thoughts:

1. Such shows (TV and radio) have been used deliberately by public health organizations to fight AIDS. It is one thing to hold training sessions and open and maintain clinics but it is another to have successful soap operas that promote certain behaviors.

2. These situations provided some fascinating natural experiments. I occasionally ask students this very question: how might you set up a natural experiment to test the effects of television? In the United States, outside of some ultra-controlled environment a la The Truman Show, it is difficult to quickly answer this question.

3. Sociologist Juliet Schor nicely explains the mechanism behind this in The Overspent American. Mass media presents average residents a new, commonly known reference group to which they can compare themselves. Instead of primarily comparing themselves to neighbors or acquaintances, viewers started seeing what “middle-class” or “normal” look like on television and then work to emulate that.

4. Media output is not simply entertainment – something is being promoted. Being able to watch and experience this critically is crucial in a world awash with media and information.

Stark demographic figures for Japan

A post at New Geography lays out several population figures for Japan:

In 2007, Japan’s population reached a tipping point. It was the first year in its history (excluding 1945) where the number of deaths exceeded the number of births. In 2007 there were 2,000 more deaths than births. In 2011 that figure rose to approximately 204,000, and it’s a figure that is accelerating. Indeed, at 23.1%, Japan has the highest proportion of over-65s in the world, and at 13.2%, the world’s lowest proportion of under 14s. Japan’s population peaked at 127.7 million in 2007, and is forecast to shrink to a mere 47 million by 2100.

While the topic of declining fertility rates in many industrialized nations has been discussed for a while now, I’m still not sure we are prepared to deal with the idea of declining populations. Particularly in the United States, we associate population increases with progress. An example: cities that lose population are seen as doing something wrong while cities that are growing are successes. A similar mindset exists with religious congregations. Japan is clearly an advanced nation yet what happens if it loses more than half of its population in the period of a century? And what happens if this is done by choice? Throughout human history, population loss is typically tied to factors like disease, ecological conditions, and war, not by a populace who isn’t interested in having more children.

A thought: what if we end up in a Children of Men type world that is brought about because humans simply don’t want to have children anymore?

Projecting the Muslim population in 2030 around the world

Pew has a new report on projecting the Muslim population around the world for 2030. You can look at separate reports by region and there is a lot of interesting information. If you look at the data for the United States, the prediction is that there will be 6.2 million Muslims by 2030. This is still a relatively small percentage compared to the total population though this would be a 140% increase. The numbers for Europe are quite different: the projection is France, Belgium, and Russia will be more than 10% Muslim.

Lots of good data here on everything from fertility rates to migration to age breakdowns.