TV as Birth Control: Defusing the Population Bomb

The popularity of soap operas seems to be defusing the population bomb in developing countries, and could be a useful tool for social change.

  • A TV in the living room might have the power to transform behavior in the bedroom.
    Illustration by Fotolia/p!xel 66
  • Total fertility rate for India in 2012.
    Illustration by Martin Lewis

Earlier this year Stanford human geographer Martin Lewis asked his students a simple question: How did they think U.S. family sizes compared with those in India? Between Indian and American women, who had the most children? It was, they replied, a no-brainer. Of course Indian women had more—they estimated twice as many. Lewis tried the question out on his academic colleagues. They thought much the same.

But it’s not true. Indian women have more kids, it is true, but only marginally so: an average of 2.5 compared to 2.1. Within a generation, Indian women have halved the number of children they bear, and the numbers keep falling.

It’s not that the population problem has gone away in India—yet. India has a lot of young women of childbearing age. Even if they have only two or three children each, that will still continue to push up the population, already over a billion, for a while yet. India will probably overtake China to become the world’s most populous nation before 2030.

But India is defusing its population bomb. A fertility rate of 2.5 is only a smidgen above the long-term replacement level, which—allowing for girls who don’t reach adulthood and some alarming rates of aborting female fetuses—is around 2.3. The end is in sight.

With most of the country still extremely poor, this is a triumph against all expectations. And it offers some intriguing clues to a question that has dogged demographers ever since Paul Ehrlich published his blockbuster book The Population Bomb: What can persuade poor people in developing countries to have fewer babies?

Taking time off from bemusing his students, Lewis decided to investigate. Being a geographer, he tackled the question with maps. He noted that, within the overall rapid decline in Indian fertility, there continued to be great regional variations. So he mapped fertility in each Indian state and examined those patterns against the patterns for some of the demographers’ favored drivers of lowered fertility. When he compared his maps, he found that variations in female education fit pretty well. So did economic wealth and the Human Development Index, which measures education, health, and income. The extent of urbanization looked like a pretty good match, too. But he also found that TV ownership tallied well with fertility across India. Not perfectly, he concluded, but as well as or better than the more standard indicators. A TV in the living room, in other words, might have the power to transform behavior in the bedroom.

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