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Am I Sick? Google Has a Doctor Waiting on Video

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The Internet can be a dangerous place to get medical advice. Stomachaches turn into cancer, stress becomes an endocrine tumor. Crack remedies and strange diets abound. Now Google is playing with a new technology that it hopes will help people find more reliable medical information. It’s called a doctor.

Google’s “Helpouts” product — a service where people can search for experts and talk to them over video — is running a trial program in which people who are searching for symptoms like pink eye and the common cold can video-chat with a doctor. The company is working with medical groups including Scripps and One Medical, which are “making their doctors available and have verified their credentials,” according to a spokeswoman.

“When you’re searching for basic health information – from conditions like insomnia or food poisoning – our goal is provide you with the most helpful information available,” the spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

Health care has become one of Google’s biggest side projects. The company’s life sciences division is developing a contact lens that monitors glucose levels. It recently acquired Lift Labs, maker of a high-tech spoon for people with hand tremors.

Google has also used its tremendous coffers to fund Calico, a pharmaceutical company that is being run by the former head of Genentech. Calico recently announced a new partnership to build a Bay Area-based facility that will research diseases that afflict the elderly, like neurodegeneration and cancer.

“When you’re as big as Google is, there are only so many other markets that matter, and health care is one,” said Ben Schachter, an analyst at Macquarie Securities.

Telemedicine is  an old concept. Doctors have been using the telephone since the telephone was invented. And they have been sharing X-ray images and using videoconferencing for at least 40 years, according to the American Telemedicine Association.

“This year, between 800,000 and one million consultations will be done over the Internet directly to consumers in the United States,”  said Jonathan Linkous, chief executive of the American Telemedicine Association. “So clearly consumers want this.”

The $2.8 trillion United States health care market is a big target for all kinds of companies.

Apple announced a health-monitoring app, HealthKit, for its new iOS 8 operating system. The app logs statistics like a user’s footsteps, heart rate and sleep activity, and will be able to pull data from third-party fitness and health-monitoring hardware.

Apple also said it would allow makers of health-monitoring apps to integrate tightly with HealthKit. For example, the Mayo Clinic has retooled its app so that if a patient’s vital signs, like blood pressure, seem concerning, HealthKit can notify the hospital so that a doctor can reply to the patient.

Walmart has also been experimenting with ways to tap into  health care. A PWC report has a case study of a recent Walmart partnership with Kaiser Permanente, in which Walmart opened 300-square-foot “Kaiser Permanente Care Corners” at two stores in California.

The centers had diagnostic equipment like blood pressure cuffs and, much like Google’s new “Helpouts” feature, they allowed customers to do video calls with Kaiser doctors and nurses.

Quality of Words, Not Quantity, Is Crucial to Language Skills, Study Finds

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It has been nearly 20 years since a landmark education study found that by age 3, children from low-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than more affluent children, putting them at an educational disadvantage before they even began school. The findings led to increased calls for publicly funded prekindergarten programs and dozens of campaigns urging parents to get chatty with their children.

Now, a growing body of research is challenging the notion that merely exposing poor children to more language is enough to overcome the deficits they face. The quality of the communication between children and their parents and caregivers, the researchers say, is of much greater importance than the number of words a child hears.

A study presented on Thursday at a White House conference on “bridging the word gap” found that among 2-year-olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!”); rituals (“Want a bottle after your bath?”); and conversational fluency (“Yes, that is a bus!”) — were a far better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.

“It’s not just about shoving words in,” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University and lead author of the study. “It’s about having these fluid conversations around shared rituals and objects, like pretending to have morning coffee together or using the banana as a phone. That is the stuff from which language is made.”

In a related finding, published in April, researchers who observed 11- and 14-month-old children in their homes found that the prevalence of one-on-one interactions and frequent use of parentese — the slow, high-pitched voice commonly used for talking to babies — were reliable predictors of language ability at age 2. The total number of words had no correlation with future ability.

The idea that quality of communication matters when it comes to teaching children language is hardly new.

“Our field has been pretty consistent in recognizing all along that there has to be quality and quantity,” said Dr. Hirsh-Pasek. Even the 1995 study that introduced the notion of the 30-million-word gap, conducted by the University of Kansas psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, found that parental tone, responsiveness and use of symbols affected a child’s I.Q. and vocabulary.

But this year’s studies are the first time researchers have compared the impact of word quantity with quality of communication. The findings, said Dr. Patricia K. Kuhl, a director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington and an author of the April study, suggest that advocates and educators should reconsider rallying cries like “close the word gap,” that may oversimplify the challenges facing poor children.

“I worry about these messages acting as though what parents ought to focus on is a word count, as though they need a Fitbit for words,” she said, referring to the wearable devices that tally steps.

The use of the word “gap” may be counterproductive, said Dr. Hirsh-Pasek. “When we talk about gaps, our natural tendency is to talk about filling them,” she said. “So we talk about the amount as if we’re putting words inside the empty head of a child.”

“But in the same way that you can’t drop the shingles and the siding for a house on the ground, you need to have the foundation there first if language isn’t going to just roll off the child’s back and become background noise.”

For the new study, Dr. Hirsh-Pasek and colleagues selected 60 low-income 3-year-olds with varying degrees of language proficiency from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, a long-term, wide-ranging study of 1,300 children from birth to age 15. Other researchers reviewed video of those children at age 2 in play sessions with their parents. The researchers watching the video were unaware of how the children would later develop.

“We were able to ask whether those interactions held any clues accounting for the differences we saw at age 3,” said Dr. Hirsh-Pasek, who was an author of the long-term study. “It turned out we were able to account for a whole lot of the variability later on.”

Quality of communication accounted for 27 percent of the variation in expressive language skills one year later, she said. The results were not significantly changed when the researchers controlled for the parents’ educational level.

But those who urge parents to talk to their children more say that increased quantity of language inevitably leads to better quality.

“It’s not that one mother is saying ‘dog’ and the other is saying ‘dog, dog, dog,’ ” said Anne Fernald, a developmental psychologist at Stanford. “When you learn to talk more, you tend to speak in more diverse ways and elaborate more, and that helps the child’s cognitive development.Dr. Fernald, author of a 2013 study that found a vocabulary gap between affluent and poor children as young as 18 months, is a scientific adviser to Providence Talks, a program in Providence, R.I., that outfits children with devices that record the number of words they hear each day.People emphasize the quantity because that’s what you can measure,” she said. But she noted that the program also sent counselors into children’s homes to more closely evaluate their exposure to language and teach parents how best to communicate with children.

Still, Ann O’Leary, director of Too Small to Fail, a joint effort of the nonprofit Next Generation and the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation that focuses on closing the word gap, acknowledged that messages to parents could do more to emphasize quality.

“When we’re doing these campaigns to close the word gap, they do capture the imagination, they do get people understanding that we do need to do a lot more talking,” she said. “But we also need to be more mindful that part of what we need to do is model what that talking looks like.”

When iPhones Ring, the Economy Listens

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Gloomy economic news and the wild swings of the stock market may be getting you down. But at least you can count on this: We’ve entered the sweet spot of the iPhone cycle.

Since Sept. 19, when the iPhone 6 and its larger sibling, the iPhone 6 Plus, went on sale, consumers have been ordering the gadgets faster than Apple can deliver them. The ripple effects are being felt throughout the economy — and they have been moving the stock market.

“The iPhone is having a measurable impact,” said Michael Feroli, the chief United States economist for JPMorgan Chase. “It’s a little gadget, but it costs a lot and it seems that everybody has one. When you do the multiplication, it’s going to matter.” He estimates that iPhone sales are adding one-quarter to one-third of a percentage point to the annualized growth rate of the gross domestic product.

You may not think of the iPhone as a financial powerhouse. After all, it’s just a consumer good — albeit a highly functional, high-end one that you can carry in your pocket or your purse. Sales typically surge every two years when, as now, Apple does a major iPhone upgrade. You may have the warm and personal relationship with the iPhone that Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, described on Monday to Wall Street analysts during a conference call. Apple’s next three months will be “incredibly strong,” he said. And he spoke enthusiastically about the principal reason for this performance: “These iPhones are the best we have ever created and customers absolutely love them.”

Whether you love them or not, though, it’s a good moment to recognize their significance as a financial force.

The iPhone’s financial impact starts, of course, with Apple, which is reaping enormous profit from it. As the company disclosed in data embedded in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing on Monday, it has been selling a broad mix of iPhone models at an average price of $603.

That’s not remotely close to the “starting price of $199” that Apple advertises, as I wrote last month. The full price is embedded in service agreements that many customers in the United States reach with phone carriers. And many of those carriers are stating that full price quite openly. The real starting price for a new, basic iPhone is $649, and models with more memory and bigger screens cost much more.

This price structure is lucrative for Apple. “The cost of building a basic phone has stayed at about $200 for years,” said Andrew Rassweiler, senior director for cost benchmarking services, at IHS Technology.

That estimate doesn’t include many expenses, like research and marketing costs. But it’s a rough guidepost, and it helps explain how, as Apple disclosed in a court filing two years ago, its profit margins for the iPhone are roughly double those for iPads, which tend to be priced more cheaply.

Toni Sacconaghi, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, says the gross profit margin for the iPhone is close to 50 percent. Because the iPhone is Apple’s most popular product — with more than 39 million sold in the last quarter — it accounts for a disproportionately large percentage of Apple’s overall profit, somewhere between 60 and 70 percent, Mr. Sacconaghi said.

“Apple is now so big that it takes a lot to make it grow appreciably,” Mr. Sacconaghi said. It’s producing an impressive interrelated ecosystem of products and services, including its forthcoming digital watches, its new digital payment system, its revived Mac line, refreshed iPads and new software operating systems. Even if all of its ventures succeed, none are likely in the next year or two to rival the financial impact of the iPhone. “The iPhone is the core of Apple right now,” he said.

In a sense, it’s the core of the stock market as well. Apple is the biggest company, by market capitalization, in the world. Apple accounts for about 3.5 percent of the weighting of the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. And, through Thursday, because its stock has performed magnificently while the overall market has not, Apple accounted for 18 percent of the entire rise of the S.&P. 500 index this year, according to calculations by Paul Hickey, co-founder of the Bespoke Investment Group. And the engine driving Apple shares is the iPhone.

“The market is obviously counting on another strong sales performance for the new iPhone,” he said. So far, it’s getting that performance. And, he said, Apple’s invigorating effect is likely to continue.

Because the iPhone is made mainly overseas and sold worldwide, it is stimulating the economy in other regions, particular in East Asia, Mr. Feroli observed, and it keeps a substantial amount of its cash abroad. Such factors make it harder to assess the company’s impact domestically.

“It’s not like G.M. having a great quarter,” Mr. Feroli said. “It doesn’t translate directly into employment in the United States. It’s a more complex world today, and, in that sense, Apple is representative of that world.”

Apple, though, is having a powerful impact in the United States. Last month, for example, electronic and consumer appliance store sales jumped 3.4 percent while clothing sales fell 1.2 percent, according to Commerce Department figures. “People are buying iPhones, partly as a status symbol,” Mr. Feroli said. “They’re not buying as much clothing.”

Even people who don’t buy iPhones and don’t own Apple shares have a stake in the company. I don’t own any Apple stock, for example, but I do have a stake indirectly through my 401(k) account. That’s because mutual funds in my portfolio own Apple shares as their biggest holdings. Nearly every pension fund holds some stock, and these days, there’s a good chance the biggest holding is Apple. And the most important financial lever at Apple is the iPhone.

All of that helps explain why Apple is such a formidable force, especially at this stage in its product cycle. And as the holiday shopping season approaches, and iPhones keep flying off the shelves, Apple may well keep moving the world.

Americans still prefer male bosses to female ones

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There may be more female CEOs in the Fortune 500 than ever before. Sheryl Sandberg may have sparked a movement for women to take charge of their careers. And social media may have lashed out when Microsoft’s CEO told women to trust the system rather than ask for raises.

Yet despite all these signs that attitudes toward women in power are improving, some research shows it’s more of the same. On Tuesday afternoon, Gallup released a report showing that Americans — both men and women — still say they would prefer having a male boss over a female one.

The report, part of Gallup’s weeklong Women and the Workplace series, used data from Gallup’s work and education poll, conducted in August. It found that 33 percent of the people polled would prefer a male boss. Twenty percent would prefer a female supervisor, down slightly from last year when that number was 23 percent.

Interestingly, women showed a stronger preference for male managers. When the data were broken down by respondents’ gender, 39 percent of women said they would rather their boss be male, while only 26 percent of the men in the poll said the same. Then again, women also were more interested in having a female boss (25 percent of women, versus 14 percent of men, said they’d want a female supervisor).

Part of what these numbers show is that many people don’t have a gender preference at all for their manager. Overall, 46 percent of respondents said they had no preference — an increase from last year’s 41 percent. (Though even this year’s number is down from 2002, when it was 49 percent.) Of note: Men were particularly likely to be ambivalent. The majority of men, 58 percent, said they didn’t care whether their boss was male or female. That’s up from 51 percent last year.

Women, meanwhile, had more opinions about the gender of their boss. Just 34 percent said they were indifferent. That could be out of fear of the so-called “queen bee syndrome,” in which women who’ve climbed the ladder are not viewed as strong supporters of the women behind them. Studies also have shown that female bosses who engage in workplace bullying act out mostly toward other women; that women working under other women report more stress than those working under men; and that executive women who advocate for diversity get lower performance reviews. Of course, plenty of other studies have found evidence of positive associations, such as that more women than men mentor and develop the talent below them.

One other trend the report highlights is not just the shift in attitudes, but also the shift in roles. This year, 33 percent of those polled said they currently had a female boss. Last year it was 30 percent. Perhaps as that number continues to grow, so will the ratio of people who don’t care whether their boss is male or female — and just want someone who is competent and fair.

Phone Talk

Jane talks on the phone.
Bob has been talking on the phone for an hour.
Mary is talking on the phone.

Who is not necessarily on the phone now?

I’m going to make dinner for Frank.
I’m making dinner for Judy.
I’ll make dinner for Mary.
I make dinner for Ted.
I will be making dinner for Tony.

Who are you offering to make dinner for?

Jane left when Tim arrived.
Bob left when Tim had arrived.
When Tim arrived, Mary was leaving.
John had left when Tim arrived.
After Tim arrived, Frank left.

Who did not run into Tim?

Jane is talking in class.
Bob always talks in class.
Mary is always talking in class.

Whose action bothers you?

Jane never left Jamestown.
Bob has never left Jamestown.

Who is still alive?

Don’t be surprised if your TV soon seems to know everything about your politics

Brian Fung
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By now, you’re probably aware that much of your online behavior is tracked, logged and probably sold to third parties so that marketers can better target you with ads. Targeted advertising has become a fixture of the Web, in part because Internet browsing generates a wealth of useful data that’s easily studied.

Television is a bit of a different story. Take traditional, over-the-air broadcast. For advertisers, it’s the media equivalent of a sawed-off shotgun: not terribly accurate, but extremely effective when it does find the mark. Now, however, targeted advertising on television has taken a big leap forward. And it could represent the next evolution in data-empowered politics.

Dish Network and DirecTV on Monday announced a plan to jointly give political advertisers the ability to microtarget their ads down to the household level. That means that any of over 20 million homes in the United States will soon start getting highly personalized campaign spots that were meant just for them.

Here’s how it works: While your set-top box is idle, it’ll tune into a channel that’s playing the ad you’re meant to see. It’ll record the ad using DVR, then insert it into your regular programming while you’re watching a show — replacing or bumping the ad that was supposed to air instead. This can be replicated for any household that subscribes to Dish or DirecTV, so a political strategist can pick you out and feed you a unique message.

Some TV targeting is possible already. Individually, Dish and DirecTV have offered “addressable advertising” on their own networks for about two years. But, says Carol Davidsen, a former media targeting director for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, it’s never been available at this scale. That’s why political operatives find this exciting: It gives them access to a far larger pool of potential test subjects for their material. That’s right: Satellite TV subscribers are about to be subjected to the same rigorous testing that informed the Obama campaign’s use of catchy e-mail headers.

Though this might inspire fantasies of a different ad that’s custom-made each for seniors, soccer moms and single youths, the reality is that most campaigns won’t be able to afford it. It’s simply too expensive for your average campaign to get actors or B-roll for multiple ads.

“It’s more for testing creative and testing the persuasiveness of an ad” than trying to convince undecided voters, said Davidsen in an interview.

For now at least, addressable advertising will be mainly used on a small scale to evaluate two versions of the same ad before a campaign embarks on a much larger media buy. Most likely, strategists say, the ads will be followed by phone calls asking viewers about the impact of what they saw — adopting what are essentially polling methods. That’s actually a major improvement over the current method of focus grouping content in small, less-standardized settings. The benefit of smushing Dish and DirecTV’s customer base together is that the combined sample size is much larger than before, and more representative.

But in the long run, statewide campaigns will also be using the feature to better target that core message to the people they really want to reach, all while ignoring those that can’t be persuaded. Think of it this way: If you know that a certain neighborhood is home to 100 people, a quarter of whom are on your side already and a quarter of whom are voting for the other guy, that leaves 50 people who might be susceptible to your message. Rather than blanketing the whole neighborhood with your ad and hoping it reaches the right 50 people, it’s more useful to know with certainty which homes youought to target. Once you do, you can follow up and identify who will be more easily swayed in future rounds, and the whole system repeats itself.

How Twitter accounts are the new food truck

By Matt Mcfarland
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Here’s a look at five ideas that could impact the way we live, work and play.

1. Twitter as the food truck.

It takes a brave soul to launch a restaurant as a majority fail within a few years. A less risky approach for the aspiring food entrepreneur is to open a food truck. The financial commitment is significantly smaller. If the food truck proves itself and builds a following, those customers are likely to follow it to an eventual restaurant, boosting its chances of success there.

We’re seeing how a similar script can play out with media companies. Given the limits of advertising and fierce competition online for consumers’ attention, starting a Web site from scratch is a herculean task.

A safer and smarter way to wade into the business is to launch a handful of Twitter accounts, see which one gathers a massive following and then take the “restaurant plunge” with the top account by launching a Web site. At the Atlantic, Alexis C. Madrigal has a good read on two teenagers who run the popular Twitter account@HistoryInPics:

My analysis of 100 tweets from the account this week found that, on average, a @HistoryInPics tweet gets retweeted more than 1,600 times and favorited 1,800 times.

For comparison, Vanity Fair‘s Twitter account — with 1.3 million followers — tends to get a dozen or two retweets and favorites on any given tweet.

The account has over 900,000 followers and the teens plan to launch a Web site once @HistoryInPics and its sister account @EarthPix hit a million followers. Because social networks drive so much Web traffic, it makes tremendous sense to stake a place on one of them before starting a Web site.

2. Google, the energy company.

For my money there’s no more interesting company on the planet than Google. Here’s a deep look at their interest in energy and what it means for utilities, via Utility Dive:

Google has invested over $1 billion in renewable power plants over the years and appears poised to be a major player in the energy sector for years to come. … In 2011, the company consumed 2.7 million megawatt-hours of electricity — roughly the equivalent consumption of Austin, Texas.

3. A cheap battery to store renewable energy on the grid.

Aquion has developed a sodium ion battery, a cheaper alternative than the lithium ions batteries that are the norm in smartphones and laptops. Wind and solar power can’t replace traditional power sources until we can efficiently store these renewable energies on batteries. From the MIT Technology Review:

By providing an affordable way to store solar power for use at night or during cloudy weather, the technology could allow isolated populations to get electricity from renewable energy, rather than from polluting diesel generators. Combining solar power and inexpensive batteries would also be cheaper than running diesel generators in places where delivering fuel is expensive.

4. Monsanto’s “supperveggies.” From Wired:

The company is introducing novel strains of familiar food crops, invented at Monsanto and endowed by their creators with powers and abilities far beyond what you usually see in the produce section. The lettuce is sweeter and crunchier than romaine and has the stay-fresh quality of iceberg. The peppers come in miniature, single-serving sizes to reduce leftovers. The broccoli has three times the usual amount of glucoraphanin, a compound that helps boost antioxidant levels. …
The lettuce, peppers, and broccoli — plus a melon and an onion, with a watermelon soon to follow — aren’t genetically modified at all. Monsanto created all these veggies using good old-fashioned crossbreeding, the same tech­nology that farmers have been using to optimize crops for millennia.

5. South Korea: The world’s most innovative country? Thursday I mentioned how the country is eyeing a 5G network that would be phenomenally fast. That kind of infrastructure is to be expected from a place known for innovation. Sweden took second and the United States third in Bloomberg’s rankings.

Just the right level of narcissism to be successful

by Jena Mcgregor
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Narcissism often gets a bad rap. Research has shown us that CEOs with too much egounderperform their peers during a tough economy, often take excessive risks and may be overpaid.

But research has also shown its positive side. Narcissistic CEOs are more likely to adoptdisruptive technology, leading to greater innovation. Having narcissists on your team can equal more creativity. And putting a grandiose person in charge can also mean morecharismatic leadership.

So which is it: good or bad? A new study published this month in the journal Personnel Psychology tried to answer that question, doing what academics call a “meta-analysis” of existing research on narcissism and organizational performance. The researchers aggregated the findings of more than 50 studies, including one that examined the connection between narcissism and the prominence of a CEO’s photo in an annual report and one that looked at correlations between media praise for a CEO and corporate performance.

What they found was that narcissists are more likely to reach leadership positions, but there was no consensus answer for how much narcissism really affects a leader’s success. Disappointed they had nothing to show for their analysis, the researchers decided to use data from H.R. consulting firm Hogan Assessment Systems to try to find out—if narcissism isn’t categorically good or bad—whether a happy medium exists instead.

“I was surprised no one had ever checked,” says Peter Harms, a management professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and one of the study’s co-authors. “There must be somewhere between a total lack of confidence and malignant self esteem,” he says, that would be appropriate for good leadership.

As it turned out, they were right. By analyzing personality assessments and performance evaluations from six data sets, the researchers found that the relationship between narcissism and leadership effectiveness took on the shape of an upside-down U. The leadership ratings of those at the extremes (the insecure and the timid on one side, and the toxic self-aggrandizers on the other) were poor, while those in the middle did very well.

“The ancient Greeks were right,” Harms says. “Everything in moderation.”

Harms says that if companies choose to screen for narcissism in their hiring practices or personality assessments of leaders—say, not hiring or promoting anyone who rates in the top or bottom 10 percent—they should first do an internal evaluation of what an optimal level is for their organization. What rates as average levels of ego and confidence at a hospital, for instance, might be very different than at a Wall Street bank.

And then, of course, narcissism has to be taken in context. “A narcissist who’s not very smart or hard-working is a disaster,” Harms says. “But a narcissist who’s really smart and really hard working could end up being someone brilliant like Steve Jobs.”

Study: MTV’s ’16 and Pregnant’ led to fewer teen births


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By Jacque Wilson, CNN

The next time your teen turns on MTV’s “16 and Pregnant,” avoid any disparaging remarks. The show may actually encourage him or her to practice safer sex, according to a new study.

The study, released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research, says “16 and Pregnant” ultimately led to a 5.7% reduction in teen births in the 18 months after its premiere on TV. This would account for about one-third of the overall decline in teen births in the United States during that period, researchers Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine concluded.

In 2011, a total of 329,797 babies were born in the United States to girls between the ages of 15 and 19; that’s a rate of 31.3 births per every 1,000 girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC does not have rates available for 2012; Kearney and Levine say that number dropped to 29.4 per every 1,000 that year.

The declining teen birth rate is a well-documented trend in the United States. Between 1991 and 2008, the rate dropped steadily at an average of about 2.5% a year. In the past four years, it has dropped even more dramatically at a rate of about 7.5% per year.

“We were really curious as to what was going on,” said Kearney, who has been studying teen pregnancy interventions alongside Levine for more than a decade. When the researchers learned that Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, thought MTV’s shows may have something to do with it, they thought: “Could that really be true?”

U.S. women having fewer children

“16 and Pregnant” premiered in June 2009 and has been on for five seasons, with a total of 47 episodes through October 2013. The show features one teen every episode and follows her through several months during and after pregnancy. The documentary-style show inspired several spinoffs, including the popular “Teen Mom.”

Both “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” have experienced their share of controversy. The shows are often criticized for glamorizing teen pregnancy.

“Instead of really helping viewers understand the day-to-day responsibilities of attending to a new infant — scrubbing poop stains or spit-up out of clothing — or dwelling on the ‘mundane,’ MTV chooses to focus on the girls’ volatile relationships with the babies’ fathers or their new body piercings and tattoos,” Parents Television Council Director Melissa Henson wrote on CNN. “That makes for better TV.”

Kearney and Levine looked at Nielsen ratings as well as search data from Google Trends and Twitter to determine the show’s potential impact on teen birth rates. They recorded spikes in Google searches and Twitter mentions about the show when new episodes aired and looked specifically for searches on terms such as “birth control” and “abortion” alongside those spikes.

Photos: When teens want to have children

They then analyzed geographic data to see whether locations with higher search activity and tweets about “16 and Pregnant” showed higher levels of searches and tweets about birth control and abortion.

They did.

The researchers also looked to see whether high viewership in certain areas corresponded with a bigger drop in teen births.

It did.

“The results of our analysis indicate that exposure to ’16 and Pregnant’ was high and that it had an influence on teens’ thinking regarding birth control and abortion,” the researchers write.

That’s all well and scientific, but could a TV show really have that big of an impact on teen birth rates?

“It’s an extraordinary study done by two very cautious economists,” said Bill Albert, chief program officer at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “I jokingly refer to them as Drs. No because they generally set out to say, ‘That doesn’t work.’ For that reason alone, we take it very seriously.”

Kearney said that while she and Levine did a lot of “fancy economic work” to make sure their conclusion was right, the most compelling evidence came from the teens’ social media language. “The text of the tweets are phenomenal: ‘This reminds me to take my birth control.’ ‘Watching 16 & Pregnant, going to take my birth control,’ ” she remembered reading.

Of course, no one, including the study authors, is saying that MTV alone is responsible for the declining teen birth rate.

Pediatricians support condoms for teens

About half of the recent dramatic decline can be attributed to the recession, Kearney says. Research shows that all birth rates fall during slow economic times, including teens’; those who were once ambivalent about using birth control often become more conscientious when they realize that finding — or keeping — a job to support a baby would be difficult.

Kearney believes TV shows like “16 and Pregnant” work to deter teens in a similar way.

“Shows that make it clear how hard it can be … affect girls who might not care otherwise,” she said. “You see she’s fighting with her boyfriend on a daily basis. She’s gaining weight. Her friends are partying without her.”

Making the immediate cost clear seems to get through to teens more than statistics that show what happens to teen parents when they’re 25, Kearney says.

Teens may turn to TV shows about sex because they’re lacking other options, Albert says. A recent study published in the medical journal JAMA showed that doctors certainly aren’t spending a lot of time talking about the important topic: The average conversation about sex between doctors and teens in the study lasted less than two minutes.

Doctors don’t talk to adolescents about sex

And parents, Albert says, are often shocked to learn that teens say their parents have a major influence on their decisions about sex.

“I think the takeaway here is that media can be, and often is, a force for good,” Albert said. “We have always viewed these particular shows as sex education for the 21st century.”

Dam it: Brazil’s Belo Monte stirs controversy

About 24,000 people will be displaced from towns in the Amazon to make way for the world’s third biggest dam

‘Battle for public opinion’

Last year, more than one million Brazilians signed a petition against the dam in less than a week and in 2010 American filmmaker James Cameron came to Brazil to take up the cause of fighting against the dam.

Meanwhile, Norte Energia is pushing ahead both on construction and the battle for public opinion.

The first turbine is expected to be operational by 2015, and the entire project complete by early 2019.

They say all plans are on schedule.

The company has started a television station in Altamira, TV Belo Monte, and also hired Luiz Carlos Barreto, a famous Brazilian cinema filmmaker, to produce promotional videos extolling the benefits of the dam.

Altamira, Brazil – Drive about 90 minutes outside this sultry Brazilian Amazon town, and into the thicket of the jungle, and a surreal, other-worldly scene appears.

It’s a place where dozens of steel arms with giant claws from land excavators cut into the red earth, carving out deep holes.

There are earth movers, growling bulldozers and dump trucks crossing switch back roads that lead into colossal man-made craters, while clusters of hard hat-wearing engineers, glare down inspecting it all.

Belo Monte dam washes residents away

This is the scene at the opening phase of the building of the largest and most expensive project in Brazil, and one of the most controversial projects in Latin America: The Belo Monte Dam, along the Xingu River.

Officially the ground breaking quietly happened in June of last year, but the heavy construction ramped up during the turn of the year, and is moving full speed ahead at a blistering pace.

Five thousand men are working in two shifts, from 7 am until 5 pm and from 5 pm until 2:30 am, six days a week.

The construction area is gigantic, comprising three separate work sites sites that will eventually merge together to form two reservoirs 500 square kilometres in size linked by a channel comprising the Belo Monte Dam complex.

Twice a day, dynamite is used to blow up hard rock under the earth to make way for the dam.

A ‘small city’ is being built inside the work area to accommodate some of the 20,000 labourers and engineers who will be working here by November 2013.

When completed, Belo Monte will be the world’s third largest hydroelectric dam and the latest cost estimate is $14bn.

The construction scene is all the more remarkable given that until a few months ago, Belo Monte’s future still seemed in doubt, as the project faced a wave of judicial injunctions, and opposition from indigenous groups and environmental organisations both in Brazil and abroad.

Belo Monte Dam:
Estimated Cost:$14bn USDWorkers: 5,000 now, 20,000 by November 2013Schedule: First turbine to start generating electricity in February 2015, final completion of project by
January 2019.

Size: Will be the world’s third largest dam, behind China’s Three Gorges and Brazil-Paraguay Itaipu. It’s
currently the largest construction project in Brazil, and one of the largest in all of Latin America.

Who: Norte Energia, a consortium of over 10 of the largest construction, engineering, and mining firms in the world, mostly Brazilian. Norte Energia is a private (‘special use’) company set up especially for the Belo Monte Dam.

Location: Belo Monte is located on the Amazon’s Xingu River. The nearest town is the city of Altamira (pop 98,750), roughly 50 kilometres from the construction site. It’s in the Brazilian state of Para (pop 7.6 million). There are 11 cities in the area of influence of Belo Monte.

About the Xingu River:  The Xingu River flows from the tropical savanna of central Mato Grosso state,
Brazil northward to the Amazon for 1,979 km (1,230 miles). According to NGO International Rivers, some 25,000 indigenous people from 18 distinct ethnic groups live along the Xingu. Norte Energia says only 2,200 indigenous people are in the Belo Monte area of influence.

History of Belo Monte project:  The idea of building a dam on the Xingu River was first proposed in the 1970s, during the time of the military dictatorship in Brazil. The idea was for several Dams on the Xingu, but it never went forward and the plans were just put on hold.

In 1989, an international mobilisation (called the Encontro do Xingu) led by the Kayapo Indians stopped state-owned electric company Eletronorte’s plans to construct a six-dam complex on the Xingu.

During the 1990s there was more of a focus put on energy and plans for Belo Monte were again renewed. Former President Lula da Silva agreed to the Belo Monte Dam project.

With the project coming closer to reality, yet still working it’s way through the legal and environmental and government bodies, in May of 2008 there was a second Encontro do Xingu gathering and it was the largest indigenous gathering ever in the Brazilian Amazon.

Thousands of indigenous people protested against Belo Monte. But at the same time there were a series of high profile energy blackouts in major Brazilian cities, that talk of needing more energy was again renewed.

In April 2010 the Consortium Norte Energia was formed, made up of 11 companies, and won the rights to build the dam. Ibama, the environmental regulatory agency, signed off on the project. July 23, 2011 construction officially began, but ramped up in January 2012.

The judicial injunctions were primarily imposed by the federal prosecutors office in the state of Para where Belo Monte is located and they questioned the builders processes of environmental licensing, contracting bids and the rights of effected indigenous populations.

Renewable energy worth social cost?

Those regional injunctions were either thrown out by higher courts or appealed, which has allowed builders to proceed forward and project and air of confidence.

“In this moment Belo Monte has the perspective to fulfill absolutely all its timetables,” Joao Pimentel, the director of institutional relations for Norte Energia, told Al Jazeera. “We haven’t had any delays by any judicial action or for any other reason, and we never had any lost days of work. That’s why Belo Monte is going to continue within the timeframe.”

While Belo Monte is being built by Norte Energia – a consortium of more than 10 mining, engineering and construction companies – the project is heavily backed by the federal government and Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, who have long said the dam is an essential component of Brazil’s energy security.

Pimentel argues Belo Monte represents clean, renewable energy, and he points to the fact 86 per cent of Brazil’s energy generation is from renewables, far higher than the world average.

“Brazil needs Belo Monte,” Pimentel said.

Most environmentalists disagree, arguing that the ecological and social impacts of Belo Monte far outweigh any benefits.

“Belo Monte’s social and environmental impacts are far greater than the Norte Energia propagandists would lead us to believe,” Christian Poirier, Brazil programme coordinator for Amazon Watch told Al Jazeera. “They are in fact an unacceptable price to pay for a hugely inefficient mega-project carved into an extremely sensitive and precarious region.”

Poirier says the Brazilian government has put too much emphasis on hydroelectric dams and not on wind and solar energy, which are generally considered to have less social and environmental impacts.

There is also the issue of displacement. According to Pimentel, about 6,000 families, or roughly 24,000 people, are being paid-off to leave their homes to make way for the dam.

Elio Alves da Silva, 56, a fishermen in the community of Santo Antonio – which sits at the base of one the main work sites – is being pushed off the land where he has lived for more than 30 years.

Only 60 families live in the community, but more than half have taken the payout and moved.

Their homes are then quickly demolished by Norte Energia, and no trespassing signs put up. The church will be destroyed, and the tiny cemetery with about 20 gravesites has also been closed.

Payouts not enough

“Our community was one of the most talked about in the area,” Alves da Silva told Al Jazeera. “Belo Monte is finishing our community. We had no option. For me, the saddest part of this story is to know that everything I helped create here I’m now seeing it all be destroyed. For me, this is the most difficult part.”

There are a handful of people who don’t want to leave, but last month the Brazilian government declared the entire Belo Monte construction area as well as surrounding ‘areas of impact’ part of the ‘public interest,’ meaning that residents have little legal recourse.

Mr Alves da Silva was offered about $11,000 for his home, but when he rejected that amount, Norte Energia offered a few hundred more dollars that he accepted, fearing there was no other option.

The money, he says, isn’t enough to buy a proper piece of land, so he’s moving 70km away to the only area he can afford, but will loose his livelihood of fishing.

“I consider myself as one of those who has been defeated,” Alves da Silva said.

When thinking about his home being bulldozed, tears started to roll down his cheeks.

“It’s difficult, very difficult,” he said.

Pimentel argues that Belo Monte’s social impacts will be marginal.

“The design of Belo Monte was changed in the last year precisely to reduce the social impacts,” Pimentel said. “The population that has been or will be removed during the process of the building of Belo Monte will only be in those areas that are necessary for the reservoir. And that is a small population… Yes, there are social impacts of a big project like Belo Monte, but we are mitigating those.”

Questions such as how much land will be flooded and how many indigenous people will be effected have been batted around for years; debates about effects of building a dam of such magnitude on the Xingu River date back to the late 1970s during the time of Brazil’s military dictatorship.

But today Belo Monte is fast becoming a reality, not just a concept to discuss.

Unanticipated social consequences

Just this week the Arara indigenous community claimed that land runoff from the construction was dirtying the Xingu river water they use to fish and drink. The public prosecutor’s office has asked environmental authorities to urgently look into the matter.

And the city of Altamira has suffered a transformation as thousands of migrants merge on the city for jobs on the dam. The prices at the few hotels in town have more than doubled, and there has been skyrocketing land prices and home rentals. New business are opening to meet demand of well-funded engineers migrating to the city from other parts of Brazil.

And there is also crime.

ISTOE, a respected national news magazine, recently reported that criminality in Altamira has skyrocketed – the number of weapons confiscated jumped 379 per cent from 2010 to 2011 – as thousands of migrants flooded the city looking for work on the dam project.

“The trafficking of drugs and the bank robberies have intensified in the Xingu region because of a higher number of people and the movement of resources generated by the work of the large construction project,” Paulo Kisner, the local Federal Police boss in Altamira, told the magazine. “Investments in the cities of the Xingu area are not being made, and the consequence is the increase in cost of living for a majority of population that is poor.”

Belo Monte officials strongly deny crimes rates in Altamira are related to the construction project.

A new study released by a respected Brazilian environmental research organisation claims that deforestation will spike in the coming years in the region around the dam with an estimated 800 square kilometres destroyed in a “best case scenario”, or as much as 5,316 square kilometres in a “worst case scenario” depending on migrations patterns.

Perhaps shocked by the speed of construction, Xingu Vivo Para Sempre, the main local NGO fighting against the dam, stormed a part of the construction site in January and spray painted work vehicles with anti-dam slogans, temporarily halting work for about one hour.


But decades after this project first was considered, and with cement being laid and earth movers carving new paths for construction, some opponents of the dam say there is still a long battle ahead.

“The government and builders of Belo Monte appear to think that rushing this disaster’s completion will make it a fait accompli,” said Poirier, from Amazon Watch. “But I’m afraid what they are doing is provoking further conflict with affected people and the potential for a prolonged standoff.”

For his part, Pimentel is convinced the benefits outweight the costs. If there is no dam, he said, “there will be a need for nuclear or coal power and that is worse”.

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