Wednesday, December 22, 2010

MTV's 'Teen Mom:' Harmful or Helpful?

Each week, millions of viewers tune in to watch teen girls try their best to be parents on national TV. About a year and a half ago, MTV started a new reality show known as "16 and Pregnant." The show featured about six girls around the age of 16 struggling to juggle school, family, friends, and relationships on top of having a baby on the way. They are forced to push aside their own dreams and put their babies first. For some reason, teens and young women, including myself, got addicted to the show, which airs on Tuesday nights at 10pm. The show became so popular that it is now in its third season with all different girls, and also led to a spinoff known as "Teen Mom," which just finished its second season and is scheduled to being its third season in January. This show revolves around four girls from "16 and Pregnant" and how they are raising their newborns to toddlers as well as dealing with other drama. The series' pilot episode was the highest rated premiere on MTV in over a year with 2.1 million total viewers, and the season one finale brought in 3.6 million viewers. The second season of the show premiered on July 20, 2010. For its season finale, it pulled in over 5.5 million viewers. What is it about teen pregnancy that we find so fascinating? Is seeing an average, everyday person struggle something we find comforting? Maybe people were sick and tired of watching shows about rich celebrities show off their cars and houses, and enjoyed seeing people that remind them of those from everyday life. Either way, teen pregnancy is a hot topic in Hollywood that everyone is always buzzing about. For such a taboo subject, many celebrities seem to have no problem discussing their personal lives in the pages of magazines, the internet or TV.

The original stars of 16 and Pregnant
When Jamie-Lynn Spears, Britney Spears' little sister, went on the cover of the December 31, 2008 issue of OK! magazine at the age of 16 to announce her pregnancy, it was their best-selling issue of the year. (And she was paid $1 million to do so.) These are the types of celebrities that young girls look up to, so what kind of message does it send when these girls are having babies? They might think it's easy because TV and magazines portray it that way, but being a teen mom is no picnic. Although shows like "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom" show some of the struggles of being a teen parent, let's not forget that these girls are getting hefty paychecks from MTV to share their lives with the world. (It has been reported that they receive $60-$65,000 each per season.) What teens need to realize is that everything they see on TV is not real- it's just reality TV. All of the attention prompts the question of whether the young women's rise to pop prominence glamorizes teen pregnancy and motherhood. Child psychologist Laurie Zelinger says, "While a teenage parent may be doing the best they can, they don't have all the information to weigh their options. The emotional part of them says, 'Wow, this is exciting getting my 15 minutes of fame,' but they're not always thinking of the effect on the child. I think it does increase the likelihood that for some people, they will say, 'I can do it, too.' "

Two stars of "Teen Mom", Maci Bookout and Catelynn Lowell, spoke out about how they feel the show impacts other teens. "I'm not trying to glamorize teen pregnancy," says Lowell, who adds that she and boyfriend Tyler Baltierra regularly communicate with their daughter Carly's adoptive parents. "If anything, I'm trying to stop it or at least try to make (teens) make better decisions like using protection or birth control. I'm doing the show for a good reason — to show teens that these are struggles that you go through when you become a young mom." Bookout concedes that all of the attention is "weird" for her and her son Bentley but says that the larger picture is more important. "I don't think I would ever regret doing '16 and Pregnant' or 'Teen Mom' because I did it for educational reasons," she says. "I definitely think it's doing its job, because some of the feedback I get from younger girls is really good as far as, 'I'm going to wait to have sex' or 'I'm going to use safe sex.' That was my goal. I didn't do it for the fame or for the attention."


It's not just celebrities who are discussing teen pregnancy openly. Lifetime Movie Network released "The Pregnancy Pact" on January 23, 2010 and drew in 23.3 million viewers in its first four airings. Also, out of 214 Lifetime Original Movies, it is ranked as the fourth highest. The movie is based on the 2007 media circus surrounding 17 teenagers in Gloucester, MA who allegedly had a pact to all get pregnant together. The girls were all 16 or younger, and most of the fathers weren't in high school. At least one was 24 years old. Superintendent Christopher Farmer said, "They will have a baby as part of their life to give them status. Motherhood gives them status." Doctor Elisabeth Guthrie, a pediactric psychiatrist, said, "It sort of gives you the impression of being an adult, an independent. It may give you an opportunity for unconditional love and attention from the baby and also that you give to the baby." Clearly, some teen girls are not taking the possibility of becoming pregnant and raising a child seriously. This opens up a whole new can of worms in regards to whether or not schools should provide sex education programs and birth control to teens rather than preach abstinence all the time.


The sad fact is, 3 in 10 girls in the U.S. will get pregnant at least once by age 20, and 1 in 6 girls in the U.S. will be a teen mom. An estimated 750,000 teens will become pregnant this year. Babies born to teens are more likely to grow up poor, have health problems, be abused and neglected, fail in school and eventually become teen parents themselves. Less than half of teen moms graduate from high school, and 8 out of 10 fathers don't marry the teen mothers of their babies. Also, less than 2% of teen moms earn a college degree by age 30. These facts are something to think about. "Babies are great—they’re cute and cuddly and they love you. But they’re also needy and selfish—they want all your time and attention and they want it NOW. Be honest—there are a million things you'd rather be doing than changing a diaper, right? So if you decide to have sex, have you considered the consequences of getting pregnant or causing a pregnancy? Weirdly enough, almost 50% of teens have never thought about how a pregnancy would affect their lives even though having a baby could be one of the most life-changing things to happen to them" (stayteen.org).


"Although sexual behavior among teens in the United States is similar to that of teens in other developed countries, teens in the U.S. are less likely to use effective forms of contraception. The result is that the U.S. has the second highest teen birth rate among 46 countries in the developed world" (familyeducation.com). Findings from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) show that one third of teen pregnancies end in abortion. Meanwhile, a teen who chooses to carry her pregnancy to term runs the risk of experiencing complications, usually because she fails to obtain proper prenatal care. According to the Centers for Disease Control, a pregnant teen is less likely to gain the appropriate amount of weight and is more likely to smoke during her pregnancy. Because of this, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unintended Pregnancy, babies born to teen mothers are more likely to be premature, and almost 10% have a low birth weight. In addition, children born to teenage mothers have significantly lower cognitive test scores at age two, compared to children born of intended pregnancy. Health problems to the fetus aren't the only risks a pregnant teen faces. According to ACOG, most teens (90%) who carry their pregnancy to term decide to raise their child themselves. Very few teens look to adoption as an option. Teen mothers are less likely to finish high school or get married, and are more likely to live in poverty, reducing their ability to properly care and provide for their children. Their low or nonexistent income makes it more likely that they will seek public assistance and depend on welfare. Diapers are expensive, but it's nothing compared to the $9 billion that teen pregnancy costs the United States each year. Teen fathers are also less likely to finish high school, and the jobs they hold will most likely be lower paying then those of men who wait to have children. ACOG has found that the daughters of teen mothers are more likely to become teen mothers themselves, while the sons of teen mothers have a higher chance of being incarcerated than children with older parents.


"The teen birth rate has declined slowly but steadily from 1991 to 2002 with an overall decline of 30 percent for those aged 15 to 19. These recent declines reverse the 23-percent rise in the teenage birth rate from 1986 to 1991. The largest decline since 1991 by race was for black women. The birth rate for black teens aged 15 to 19 fell 42 percent between 1991 to 2002. Hispanic teen birth rates declined 20 percent between 1991 and 2002. The rates of both Hispanics and blacks, however, remain higher than for other groups. Hispanic teens now have the highest teenage birth rates. Most teenagers giving birth before 1980 were married whereas most teens giving birth today are unmarried. The younger a teenage girl is when she has sex for the first time, the more likely she is to have had unwanted or non-voluntary sex. Close to four in ten girls who had first intercourse at 13 or 14 report it was either non-voluntary or unwanted" (familyfirstaid.org). The primary reason that teenage girls who have never had intercourse give for abstaining from sex is that having sex would be against their religious or moral values. Other reasons cited include desire to avoid pregnancy, fear of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD), and not having met the appropriate partner. Three of four girls and over half of boys report that girls who have sex do so because their boyfriends want them to. Teenagers who have strong emotional attachments to their parents are much less likely to become sexually active at an early age and less likely to have a teen pregnancy.


Not having sex at all is the only 100% effective method of preventing pregnancy and STDs. If you do choose to have sex, you need to make sure that you use protection correctly every single time. There are a variety of types of contraception, so do some research and figure out which method is right for you. "Whether you choose to have sex or not, it is important to be able to talk about it with your partner. Having direct conversations about sex can be difficult or embarrassing, but if you are confident about your facts and able to express openly how you feel, it should be easier. So take some time to get informed and to think through what feels right for you. It may be helpful to talk these decisions over with a close friend, parent, doctor, or other trusted adult before you talk to your partner. When you are clear about your own feelings, it will be easier to communicate them to someone else. And don’t wait until you’re in the heat of the moment to make these decisions—having a plan means being prepared before you’re in the moment" (stayteen.org). "Most people say teens should remain abstinent but should have access to contraception. 94 percent of adults in the United States and 91 percent of teenagers think it important that school-aged children and teenagers be given a strong message from society that they should abstain from sex until they are out of high school. 78 percent of adults also think that sexually active teenagers should have access to contraception to prevent teen pregnancy. Contraceptive use among sexually active teens has increased but remains inconsistent. Three-quarters of teens use some method of contraception (usually a condom) the first time they have sex. A sexually active teen who does not use contraception has a 90 percent chance of teen pregnancy within one year" (familyfirstaid.org).


"To help prevent teen pregnancy, it is essential to educate teens on sex and birth control methods. Sex education is important for both girls and boys, and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy has effectively implemented programs that promote healthy decision-making among the teen population. These decisions include delaying sexual activity, reducing the number of partners an individual has, and increasing the use of contraceptives and condoms" (familyeducation.com). ACOG recommends that girls begin visiting an ob-gyn between the ages of 13-15. This increases the chance that she will have had her first visit before becoming sexually active. Ob-gyns are well equipped to offer accurate information about sex, pregnancy, and STDs. They can discuss pregnancy prevention, such as types of birth control methods, as well as educate teens on the importance of safe sex practices. Teens are often too embarrassed to ask certain questions, and ob-gyns can address the subject in a thorough and professional manner. Besides doctors, parents also play a major role. The National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health found that the more connected teens feel to their parents, the less likely they are to begin having sex at an early age. Research has shown that positive communication between parents and their children helps young people to establish values and make healthy decisions. And, according to the Advocates for Youth, teens who receive accurate information about sex from their parents are more likely to delay becoming sexually active, and to use contraceptives when they do.

The stars of Teen Mom

I know a number of people I graduated high school with or grew up with that either became pregnant or became parents in their teens. Most chose to keep their babies and raise them themselves, with the help of family members. Others chose to have an abortion, and none chose adoption. I have seen people struggle over what decision to make and have seen the way it has impacted their lives in both positive and negative ways. While there is no doubt in my mind that they love their children, I'm sure they would have rather waited and given them a better life than they have now by either graduating from college or getting a well-paying job. Some people simply cannot wait to start their own families, and I know a couple of girls who have two or three children and are under the age of 24. I could simply never imagine doing this, and I see what a struggle it is for them. Hopefully teens will stop focusing on what they see on TV and read in magazines and see the real picture. Learn the facts, look at the statistics, and then decide what is best for you. I believe that every woman has the right to choose what happens to her own body, and whatever decision she makes is the best one for her. Before you start doing anything, just stop and take a look at yourself in the mirror. Get educated on teen pregnancy and do not choose to become just another statistic.

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