Short-Cut to Celebrity or Cautionary Tale?

Written by PTC | Published January 13, 2014

teenmomA new study, released today, is giving credit for the decline in teen pregnancy rates to the MTV series “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant.” By comparing Nielsen television ratings and birth records, researchers Melissa S. Kearney, the director of the Hamilton Project, a research group in Washington, and Phillip B. Levine of Wellesley College were able to observe that teen birth rates declined faster than the national average in markets where the programs are most popular. That may well be the case, but correlation is not the same as causation; and though the original intent behind the series was, no doubt, a sincere desire to curtail teen pregnancy rates by showing young viewers the hardships and difficulties faced by young mothers; intent and results are not always the same thing, especially once the MTV marketing machine gets involved. The young stars of 16 and Pregnant or Teen Mom are constant tabloid fodder, competing with other reality TV stars like Kim Kardashian or the Real Housewives and even displacing high-wattage celebrities like Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt for the cover story. Headlines blaring “MORE TEEN MOM BABIES! Who’s pregnant with TRIPLETS! Who’s hoping another baby will save the relationship? PLUS: AMBER & GARY REUNITE” or “TEEN MOM EXCLUSIVE: Leah’s Miracle Baby Ali’s First Steps!” and “Kailyn’s Pregnancy Scare” scream at you from the checkout lanes at the grocery store. One former Teen Mom is reportedly pursuing a career in the porn industry after undergoing a series of plastic surgery procedures. The two or three million girls who watch these reality programs may indeed see some of the down-sides to becoming a mom at sixteen. But a great many more see the tabloids and the meteoric rise to celebrity status. Looked at in the context of MTV’s other offerings, which provide anything but safe sex and pro-abstinence messaging, it becomes all the more unlikely that teen viewers are taking the cautionary tales in 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom to heart. Last fall, MTV announced a casting call for young adults who are looking to lose their virginity. Original series like The Hard Times of R.J. Berger and Skins reinforce the idea that recreational sex is fun, exciting, expected, and risk- and consequence-free. Affairs with teachers are presented as romantic and exciting, not as predatory and creepy. Recreational and irresponsible drug and alcohol use (which often leads to bad sexual health decisions) are also celebrated on most MTV series. Virginity and chastity are, meanwhile, routinely mocked and denigrated. At the end of the day, good intentions don't always yield good results. And while it would be nice to believe that these shows have played a part in curtailing teen pregnancy rates, it is unlikely that teen fans of these shows are not also absorbing the reckless sexual messaging in all of MTV’s other programming. Either way, the way MTV publicists have handled and exploited these young mothers is absolutely shameful, and whatever credit the series may be receiving for the declining teen birth rates, MTV deserves no share in. Update: The Atlantic reports that another study examining the impact and influence of Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant is to appear in a forthcoming issue of Mass Communication and Society. The study by researchers from Indiana University found that "shows such as 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom lead their audiences to believe teen parents have, “an enviable quality of life, a high income and involved fathers.”
For the study, the researchers asked 185 high schoolers about their perceptions of reality television and teen pregnancy. Exposure to the shows impacted boys and girls equally. "Heavy viewers of teen mom reality programs were more likely to think that teen moms have a lot of time to themselves, can easily find child care so that they can go to work or school and can complete high school than were lighter viewers of such shows," Martins and Jensen wrote. They were also more likely to believe that teen parents “have affordable access to healthcare, finished college, and lived on their own.” In reality, they point out, nearly half of all teen mothers fail to earn a high school diploma and earn an average of $6,500 annually over their first 15 years of parenthood.

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