MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom: Fueling the Fire or Fanning the Flame?
Reality television shows, such as MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, have successfully captured and kept the attention of viewers at home, especially the younger ones, by providing an inside look into the private lives of pregnant teens. The shows document how vastly different these teenager's lives become as they leave behind their teenage years and trade them in for parenthood. Speculation arises around the question: Are these shows accurately portraying the harsh reality of a teen moms’ daily struggle or are they in fact doing the opposite—glamorizing teen pregnancy? 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom use their popular, social platform as an educational tool to advocate for the prevention of teenage pregnancy through entertainment education, successfully raising awareness to the consequences that come from engaging in unsafe sexual intercourse among adolescents and ultimately reducing the teen birth rate statistics considerably since first airing five years ago.
The creation of the MTV reality shows, 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, was a strategic move made by producers at an opportune time in society, when the birth rates were at an all time high statistically. They were created to raise awareness about the hardships and struggles that come along with teenage pregnancy (CNN Entertainment). As you can see, the premise of these shows are embedded in a deeper, cultural issue that was at large in our nation at this time. According to Tiffany Brewer, “In 2006, teen pregnancy rates increased for the first time in more than a decade. A total of three in ten teenage girls had become pregnant before the age of twenty; and the problem is worse among communities of color with one in two girls becoming pregnant before the age of twenty” (Brewer 15). As you can see, teenage pregnancy was on the rise at this time, something that deeply pervaded the youth of this generation. An increase in teenage pregnancy rates was an epidemic well on its way to seamlessly becoming a cultural norm; something had to be done and MTV decided to take action.
The rise in teenage pregnancy during this time was a long-overdue issue in the United States that needed to be addressed; it was a reality among the youth of our generation. MTV saw an opportunity here financially, while the public health advocates saw an opportunity for change. Therefore, MTV sought out to make a difference, speaking to the topic in an approachable manner for the audience it was affecting, the adolescents. Lauren Dolgen, creator and developer of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom, and Teen Mom 2 acknowledges that, “The U.S. has the highest rates of teen pregnancy and teen birth in the fully developed world -- but at that time, no one was really talking about the harsh reality these young women were facing”. It was in that moment that the idea for 16 and Pregnant was born, it would serve as an opportunity to address the issue at large instead of ignoring it and hoping things would get better on their own (Because that’s totally realistic, right?). Dolgen states, “I wanted to help give these teenagers a voice, and to share their stories without passing judgment in a way that could start a real dialogue about the issue” (CNN Entertainment). Up until this point, this issue was the elephant in the room (Uh, or the entire U.S. for that matter. It’s fine), everyone knew it was there but no one spoke up or took action to change it (Yeah, maybe if we just leave it alone people will just stop having unprotected sex. Right.).
MTV had a plan and they were ready to execute it, which leads us to the premiere of the documentary reality series, 16 and Pregnant in June of 2009 (Voila! A star is born, a very unexpected star that is). Producers created this reality series with the intent of capturing and recording raw footage to give viewers an exclusive look inside the lives of pregnant teenage girls. The hope was to create a series that would shed light on the hardships, struggles, and sacrifices that come along with unexpected and unplanned pregnancy; especially at such a young age. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned pregnancies summarizes the series’ episodes best with, “Each-hour long episode follows a teen girl through her pregnancy and during her first few months of parenthood. Viewers get a realistic look at the wide variety of challenges young mothers can face: tumultuous relationships, family involvement (or lack there of), financial struggles, school and work stress, gossip, and more—all while learning how to care for themselves and their children” (Suellentrop, Brown & Ortiz, 2010). This allows MTV the opportunity to use their already popular entertainment network as an unexpected educational resource. 16 and Pregnant was such a hit that Teen Mom, a spinoff series of 16 and Pregnant, was created shortly after in December of 2009. Teen Mom selects the most popular cast members from the previous season of 16 and Pregnant, providing audience members a way to continue on the journey that they started with these young women. Further, keeping the emotional attachment they’ve created with those characters alive, throughout all the trials and triumphs that come during the first year of motherhood (Wright, Randall & Arroyo).
Teenage pregnancy was something so prevalent in society in the previous years leading up to the premiere of 16 and Pregnant, but people didn’t really get a chance to see what it was like behind closed doors where the reality of being a pregnant teen or a teen mom truly set in. People saw this in society, but they didn’t understand it fully, which is something that MTV sought out to do—bring public awareness to the private realities and struggles these young girls face. Melissa Kearny and Phillip Levine, both economics college professors, weigh in about the insight and examples the show provides for how hard things get for the girls with, “The show's stories resonate with teens, highlighting the realities of relationship stress, unsupportive boyfriends, restricted social lives, friends that move on and relentless sleep deprivation, among other challenges. The show makes real what some would-be teen moms might otherwise fail to see -- that becoming a mom is not a way out but brings its own hardships and struggles (). There is nothing, and I mean nothing glamorous about getting no sleep and being left to care for your child alone.
Many women think that if they get pregnant that it will make their boyfriend stay with them or love them more, when in reality it often does the opposite—creating relationship tension often leading to a breakup. Lauren Dolgen reaffirms this idea by stating, “There is nothing glamorous about forsaking the prom to stay home with a colicky baby or sacrificing a high school education to raise a child”. These girls miss out on so much of their high school experience by getting pregnant. They end up struggling to make ends meet and often putting their education on hold in order to raise their children (CNN Entertainment). The reality of being a teen mom isn’t easy and that is what MTV is trying to convey. Most of these young women end up raising their child alone and aren’t with the father of their child anymore. This shows adolescents everywhere that it isn’t the fairytale they might think it is—and who they once thought would be their prince charming will most likely bail once the child is born and things get hard.
Despite the pure intentions the show was created with, the media and its overt use of sexuality has left many uneasy about shows like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom. Critics are fearful about the messages they are sending teenagers about sexuality. The news coverage surrounding this controversy allows one to clearly see the concerns and comments that both sides of this issue are arguing. Lilit Marcus, Editor in Chief for The Huffington Post, addresses the premise of the show in a different light, insisting that the women on Teen Mom are not “ordinary young women struggling to raise their children” they are “celebrities” (The Huffington Post).
Many believe that the media’s strong portrayal of sexually explicit content has the potential to lead to the promotion of sexual promiscuity among adolescents, sparking curiosity within them. This led many to argue that 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom are glamorizing teen pregnancy. Hollie Mckay, a journalist with Fox News reports, “Putting the stars of these reality shows on a magazine cover puts them on the same plane as any actress, singer, or other celebrity;” further, Mckay includes a statement to back up her own from the organization’s Director of Communications and Public Education, Melissa Henson, “It is sending the message to girls that if you get pregnant as a result of being sexually active; you could end up on TV or a magazine cover (FOX News). It is comments from critics like the one’s provided above that draw attention away from the intention of the show, and also minimizes the successful strides and impact it has made in reducing teen pregnancy rates.
As a nation, we are guilty of using media, television in this case, as an outlet and a scapegoat to place blame on a multitude of cultural issues that are prevalent in society today. MTV’s shows 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom are prime examples of this. Initially, we as a society reacted negatively to them—assuming they were out to glamorize teenage pregnancy and sexuality among adolescents, which was never their intent. However, when looking statistically at the impact 16 and Pregnant has made among pregnancy rates, it becomes hard to ignore that these shows are certainly helping. Jacque Wilson, a reporter with CNN talks about a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which highlights the great strides 16 and Pregnant has made in reducing the number of teen births. Wilson shares that research concludes that, “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” (CNN Entertainment). As you can see, 16 and Pregnant is making a great impact and making a dent in the previously high rate of teen births. Lauren Dolgen, creator and developer of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom, and Teen Mom 2 refers to research findings done by the National Campaign, which conclude that, “among teens who watch 16 and Pregnant, 82% believe the show helps teens to better understand the challenges of teen pregnancy and parenthood and how to avoid it” (CNN Entertainment).
In conclusion, MTV’s reality television shows 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom have proven to be extremely popular among youth in society today. However, while many applaud MTV for utilizing their entertainment network as an opportunity to reach out to teenage girls and educate them about the realities of teen pregnancy, others are attacking these shows for glamorizing what it’s like to be a teen mom and raise a child at such a young age. While there will always be two sides to every controversy, there is no way to ignore cold, hard facts; and in this case, 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom have statistically proven to reduce teen pregnancy rates. They were able to successfully educate young viewers through education on their already popular network, advocating for the prevention of teenage pregnancy and encouraging viewers to consider the consequences that come along with engaging in unsafe sex with their partners. MTV continues to use their social platform within society for good, showcasing the life-altering changes and the harsh reality that come along with swapping your care-free teenage years for being a parent.
Brewer, Tiffany. “Exploring the Impact of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant on Teenage Girls” 21
April 2011. Web. March 2013.
Wright, Paul J., Ashley K. Randall, and Analisa Arroyo. "Father–Daughter Communication About Sex Moderates the Association Between Exposure to MTV’s 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom and Female Students’ Pregnancy-Risk Behavior." Sexuality & Culture 17.1 (2013): 50-66. Springer Link. Springer US. Web. 24 Mar. 2014. <http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12119-012-9137-2#>.