Scientist, Author, Educator, Tree Canopy Biologist

TV and family planning

When I took office, only high energy physicists had ever heard of what is called the Worldwide Web … Now even my cat has its own page. — Former President Bill Clinton

Nature's Secrets by CanopyMegMuch of my global forest conservation work takes me to remote parts of the planet, including India. The culture of India is vibrant, innovative, hard-working, and yet steeped in history. I sometimes think they are rushing headlong from the 18th century to the 22nd, and it’s happening before my very eyes. Culture-altering changes seem to take place between one visit and the next.

First, cellphones have become ubiquitous, and even the rural cow-herders carry them. Second, women increasingly exhibit entrepreneurship, as they assume a greater leadership role in their communities (although there is still a long way to go). Third, there is more plastic trash (an ironic symbol of development).

And fourth, after dark, increasing numbers of small, white boxes radiate inside the huts of rural villages. Televisions have emerged as an electronic plague, infiltrating the after-dark culture. Where there used to be only candles and charcoal embers, people in the rural sector increasingly spend their evenings watching reruns of soap operas and glimpses of New York and Delhi depicted in sitcoms.

According to WHO statistics, the amazing proliferation of televisions in countries like India correlates directly with declines in family size. Whereas the old-school distribution of birth control pills and family planning centers required extremely labor-intensive activities, the new world of birth control may be the simple distribution of cable television.

Recent studies have shown that TV can empower women. Watching a soap opera — where an urban woman goes to work outside the home, controls her own bank accounts, runs a business, and usually has fewer children to achieve this independence — is proving an incredible role model for the rural sector in many parts of the world.

And as cable TV creeps across the rural landscape of India, Africa and elsewhere, so do smaller family sizes.

Kenya’s popular TV show “Tushauriane” (“Let’s Talk About It”) was launched in 1987, topped the ratings, and was followed by a drop in fertility rates from 6.3 to 4.4. Jamaica’s “Newberry Street,” equally popular among islanders, had a similar correlation to reduced family size during its popular run.

The subtle message of smaller families and aspirational lifestyles enacted on TV is not the only factor that can be correlated with declining family size, but it’s clear that television can have a transformational impact on women.

In the 1970s, Mexico was one of the first countries to use television to influence family planning. Miguel Sabido, vice president of the national television network Televisa, created soap-opera programs filled with role models, with the ultimate goal of raising the standard of living.

The most popular show, “Acompaname” (“Accompany Me”), followed the misadventures of a woman living in a shack amid crime-ridden neighborhoods, and episodes highlighted her efforts to rise above the surrounding poverty. Each show was reinforced by family planning messages at the end of the broadcast. During the run of this show, contraceptive sales increased by 23 percent in one year and a half-million women enrolled in family planning clinics.

Across the world, the average woman today has 2.5 children, which is half what her mother and grandmother produced. This incredible reduction in birth rate is attributed to television in many countries, as additional miles of cable connectivity snake throughout the global landscape.

Many thoughtful social leaders lamented the expansion of television throughout the rural sector alongside the more acclaimed assets of electricity and Internet. But perhaps Mother Nature will have the last word. If the expansion of television becomes the world’s best contraception, then perhaps it is validated as a transformational technology.

Stay tuned. Can a soap opera become a potential social platform that creates a more sustainable future?

Meg Lowman, a longtime Sarasota-based scientist and educator, is chief of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences.

Originally posted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.