Should Some Teen Moms Be Exploited on Reality TV to Prevent Others From Having Babies?

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Commentary Sexual Health

Should Some Teen Moms Be Exploited on Reality TV to Prevent Others From Having Babies?

Martha Kempner

A new paper suggests that MTV's 16 and Pregnant franchise has helped reduced the teen birth rate by almost 6 percent. Before we start celebrating, however, let's remember that the show is stereotypical and exploitative and that the ends don't always justify the means.

A paper recently released by economists at the University of Maryland and Wellesley College came to the startling conclusion that MTV’s 16 and Pregnant franchise is responsible for almost 6 percent of the recent declines in teen births in the United States.

The shows—which include 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom—have been controversial from day one. Some have argued that the franchise has provided today’s teens with an accurate depiction of young parenthood, while others suggest that making reality show stars out of pregnant and parenting teens glamorizes their situations and sets a dangerous example, since most 16-year-olds who get pregnant do not end up on the cover of People magazine.

As someone who has been critical of the show since its early days, I admit that I am having a tough time swallowing the idea that it has been a force for good.

MTV launched the franchise in 2009 with 16 and Pregnant, which it describes as an “hourlong documentary series [that] focuses on the issue of teen pregnancy, with each episode detailing the wide variety of challenges—marriage, adoption, finances, gossip and graduating high school among them—a pregnant teenager faces while still coming of age.” The show and its follow-up Where Are They Now? specials were so successful that MTV created a spin-off called Teen Mom, which follows some of the girls into their first years of motherhood.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Though MTV may want to call these shows documentaries, I would argue that they have far more in common with Keeping Up With the Kardashians or even the Maury Povich Show than an episode of Nova. There is a lot of drama, much of it undoubtedly manufactured by producers, and more bleeped out curse words than one can count. This is reality TV at its most unreal.

This latest research suggests, however, that the impact of the show is very real. As part of the study, economists Melissa Kearney and Philip Levine used a number of sources of data in an effort to measure the shows’ influence. First, to prove that people watched 16 and Pregnant, they looked at Nielsen ratings data, which can be broken down by geographic location. They then turned to the Internet and social media to see if the show made an impression on its audience. By tracking Google searches and tweets within the first day after a new episode aired, they were able to determine spikes in discussions on certain topics related to the show. From these, they concluded:

The result of our analysis indicated that exposure to 16 and Pregnant was high and that it had an impact on teens’ thinking regarding birth control and abortion. Large spikes in search activity and tweets about the show are evident exactly at the time a new episode was released. We also see an associated spike in Google searchers and twitter messages containing the terms “birth control” and “abortion.” Locations in which the show was more popular experienced greater increases in searchers/tweets like this when the show was on the air.

The economists then went on to look at teen birth data. The teen birth rate has been declining in the United States for many years. It peaked in 1991, when 62 per 1,000 young women between the ages of 15 and 19 gave birth. From 1991 to 2007, the rate dropped by about 2.5 percent per year. After that period, the rate began dropping by about 7.5 percent per year until 2009, when it decreased by an impressive 9 percent. By 2010, the birth rate was down a remarkable 44 percent, to 34 births per 1,000 young women.

Curious if the show was partly responsible for the rapid decline, Kearney and Levine set about creating economic models and equations. Their somewhat startling conclusion is that the show is responsible for 5.7 percent of the decline in teen births “that would have been conceived between June 2009, when the show began, and the end of 2010.” The authors’ calculations do not separate out teen pregnancy or abortion, meaning they can’t know for sure if teens didn’t get pregnant during that time, or if the 15- to 19-year-olds who did chose abortion instead of carrying the pregnancy to term. Kearney and Levine point out, however, that during this time period abortion rates among teens fell as well, which suggests that the effect was fewer pregnancies.

On the one hand, I find it hard to believe that any equation could come to such a definitive answer about such a complicated issue. We know that teen pregnancy resides at the intersection of poverty, economic opportunity, educational opportunity, availability of information, access to contraception, current family situations, peer norms, social norms, outside influences, and teen sexual behavior. To single out one tiny factor, like a television show, seems beyond impossible.

On the other hand, these researchers are very knowledgeable, having spent much of their careers examining teen pregnancy through economic lenses, and I have been impressed with their work in the past. (I relied heavily on their research in an article explaining the drops in teen birth rates a couple of years ago.)

Common sense tells us there are essentially three ways to bring down the teen birth rate: We have to convince teens to have less sex, we have to get them to be better at using contraception, or those teens who do get pregnant have to be more likely to choose abortion. The number of teens having sex has stayed relatively stable in recent years, as has the abortion rate. That leaves contraception. For its part, the Guttmacher Institute concluded in an unrelated study that better contraceptive use and use of better contraceptives should be given the credit:

The most recent decline in teen births can be linked almost exclusively to improvements in teens’ contraceptive use … While there was no significant change over those years in the overall proportion of females aged 15–19 who were sexually experienced or engaging in sexual activity, there was a dramatic shift in teen contraceptive use.

Guttmacher suggests that increased use of hormonal methods like the pill and long-acting methods like an intrauterine device (IUD), as well as an increase in teens using dual methods (such as condoms and the pill), is responsible for the declining teen birth rates.

So if we, at least for now, believe the research that 16 and Pregnant has impacted the teen birth rate, it seems most likely that the mechanism by which it has done so is to increase teen contraceptive use. But how has it done that? The show may mention contraception from time to time, but from my sporadic viewing this does not seem to be a major focus of the dialogue or drama—after all, to be on the show, the time for contraception must have already passed. It certainly is not providing information about which methods are better for teenagers. The explanation that has been bandied about most in articles about the study is that the show portrays the difficulties with teen pregnancy and parenting so effectively that teens are scared off and go running for the hills, or the nearest family planning clinic.

In a Huffington Post piece, Kearney and Levine say that 16 and Pregnant:

…appears to make immediate costs palpable to potential teen moms. 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. In that, the show may represent a highly effective form of sex education and, as reflected in the twitterverse, a great method of birth control.

This runs counter to much of the research we have on how to do sexuality education. Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that took a “show them the consequences and they will say no” approach have failed dismally. “Baby Think It Over,” a program that used computerized dolls to simulate teen parenting, also failed to change behavior. This modern-day update to the flour-sack babies or eggs that teens of my youth carried around was designed to help young people understand the hardship of taking care of another very needy person. The dolls need to be changed, fed, and hugged, and the computer chip records everything the “parent” did or failed to do. Research suggests that while caring for these dolls may increase intention to be “cautious” in the short-term, the experience of doing so does not prevent teen pregnancy in the long-term.

But perhaps the authors are right and MTV is reaching young people in a way that no educational intervention can. Perhaps the program is so “real” and so persuasive that young people make the jump from consequences to behavior change essentially on their own—a jump that anyone who has ever zipped up too-tight jeans and vowed to diet only to eat a donut for breakfast knows is really hard.

This may be great news, and maybe we should all be celebrating a societal victory, a breakthrough in how to reach teens. But I’m not popping the champagne yet, for the simple reason that I still dislike the show. It portrays nothing but stereotypical images of teen mothers in crisis, teen dads who take little responsibility for their offspring, and struggling families who just can’t get it together. It plays into all of our assumptions about who becomes a teen mother and what her life will look like as a result.

I suppose one could argue that the show is simply presenting us with these young women’s lives as they happen and that their lives would happen in exactly the same way even if the cameras were off. But I think we are all savvy enough TV viewers to know that much of what we see on reality television is not real. Normal days in which people get up and run errands are not very interesting, but seeing what happens when an estranged teen couple goes out for coffee or a teen mom runs into her child’s father’s new girlfriend just might be. The producers are not in control over these young people’s lives, but they are in control of the show, and this is their cast. They cast people whose lives are predisposed to drama (like the young woman who was raised by a single mom until her dad, who is said to have anger management problems, got out of prison) and then they position them in situations where the potential for such drama is high.

The stars of these shows are young women and families in crisis, and whether we like it or not, we are using their crisis for our entertainment rather than stepping in to make their lives better.

But reality shows—even those designed to fix a problem—don’t thrive on helping, they thrive on showing us a trainwreck that is uncomfortable and comforting at the same time. They thrive on the sense of “there but for the grace of God go I.” From Hoarders to The Biggest Loser to Super Nanny, one can’t help but feel a grain of superiority when we watch these shows. “My house may be mess, I may be overweight, I may not be a perfect parent, but at least I’m not them,” is what we’re supposed to think.

The 16 and Pregnant franchise may have some good qualities. It may have started a national dialogue about teen pregnancy. It may be getting young people who watch the show to think more about birth control. But I can’t stop worrying about the young women—and their children—who star in this drama. No matter how well their lives turn out down the line, there will always be this unflattering footage of them struggling, cursing, fighting, and crying. Potential employers can see it, future love interests can see it, and their children, when they get old enough, can see it and learn all too clearly the pain that surrounded their first few years of life.

Letting these families be a weekly trainwreck is nothing short of exploitative, even if it helps other teens avoid similar choices. And relying on worst-case scenarios to teach our teens is a dangerous replacement for real education.