A few months ago, I wrote about how the young mothers on the MTV reality shows 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom were turning into celebrities, complete with tabloid covers and daily mentions on gossip websites. I focused on the negative side of this show’s huge popularity: how it seemed to glamorize teenage pregnancy while glossing over the real hardships faced by most girls who become mothers. This week, though, I read an article to counter that view, in which many sex educators praise these two shows for putting the topic of teenage pregnancy in the spotlight and presenting opportunities to talk about teens and sex.
The New York Times profiled several different adults who teach teenagers about healthy and safe sex, both in schools and in independent nonprofits. These educators praise 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom for showing how many challenges having a child presents in a teenage girl’s life, and letting teenagers relate what they see on the screen to consequences of the actions they take in their own lives. One educator reports that she has her class watch an episode and then draw up a budget for themselves and a baby. Another talks about how she plays the two shows in the waiting room of the teenage sexual health center where she works, so that girls better understand why they need to practice safe sex. Even the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy endorses the show, and has sent episodes on DVD to Boys and Girls Clubs across the country.
Not everyone is comfortable with the message MTV is sending, however. Dr. Sari Locker, a professor of adolescent psychology at Columbia University, has criticized 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom for not talking enough about contraceptives and healthy dating.
As for me, I’m skeptical that there’s any redeeming value in reality TV, but I’m also not a sex educator who interacts with teenagers every day. The next few years should present statistics to test whether these shows are effective, and if they help girls avoid teenage parenthood, then perhaps they do serve a purpose.
Girl Museum Inc.