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Effects of pregnant teenge reality TV shows on adolescent viewers

Surprising headlines involving teenagers acting too old for their age often make popular reality TV programming. On the other hand, when she was just 16 years old, Maya Angelou got pregnant with her son, Guy Johnson. At a time when teen mothers were often shamed and/or pushed into marrying the baby's father, the now-literary icon and renowned poet had a support system many other teenage girls don't have. But what impact do TV shows about teenage pregnancy have on adolescent viewers? And what would it take for an unwed teenage mom from a lower-income family to become famous for any given outstanding achievement in life?

Effects of pregnant teenge reality TV shows on adolescent viewers.
Photo by Craig Barritt

You may wish to check out the article by Lauren Dolgen, "Why I created MTV's '16 and Pregnant'." Lauren Dolgen is senior vice president of MTV series development on the West Coast. Dolgen created and developed MTV's "16 And Pregnant," "Teen Mom" and "Teen Mom 2."

It's a different route for low-income pregnant teens. For example, in Sacramento there's Tubman House Program in Sacramento, CA - The Giving Effect. Homeless, pregnant or parenting youth between 18 and 22 years old and their children may be found there, a different story than teens see on TV about teenage pregnancies from higher-income families. Also take a look at the site, Pregnant Teens programs Sacramento County, California.

The reality of teenage pregnancy is different from many TV programs about wealthier families

The reality of teenage pregnancy is very different from reality TV, with the exception of documentaries that focus on teenage pregnancies where the family is very low income, and more often about a pregnant teenage girl being raised by a single parent, with the boyfriend not in the picture for the daughter, but possibly a low-income boyfriend with the mother.

You may also wish to see the article about Jamie Lynn Spears' pregnancy, which had been a lead story in the news. The article discussed the 750,000 other teenage girls who get pregnant each year in the U.S., the ones who were not from wealthy, famous families.

Known as the kid sister of troubled pop star Britney Spears, Jamie Lynn made headlines of her own a few years ago when she announced her pregnancy at age 16, says Dolgen's article. Now a new study reveals what impact and perceptions shows about pregnant teenagers have on other teen viewers and how these perceptions might impact the adolescents' parents.

The creator of MTV's "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom" said, according to a January 9, 2013 news release, Study: Heavy viewers of 'Teen Mom' and '16 and Pregnant' have unrealistic views of teen pregnancy, that the shows have been called "one of the best public service campaigns to prevent teen pregnancy." A new Indiana University research study finds the opposite to be true.

Teenagers are fascinated by TV programs, but what do they learn about the difference between perceptions and reality? Poor teenage moms may suffer a different fate in real life than the teenage pregnant daughters of families with higher incomes often shown on reality TV, with the exception of documentaries on very low income, teenage girls pregnant, sometimes homeless, and in many cases abandoned by males close to their age, abused, or sometimes trafficked by the fathers of their unborn babies (or other men).

The paper accepted for publication in the journal Mass Communication and Society presents findings that such teen mom shows actually lead heavy viewers to believe that teen mothers have an enviable quality of life, a high income and involved fathers.

Many believe teen mothers have an enviable quality of life, a high income and involved fathers, if they watch enough TV episodes of pregnant teen movies. In a new study from Indiana University, researchers found that the opposite may be more realistic. The study found that exposure is linked to specific content. Researchers examined the effect between exposure and perceptions, which in the study, remained significant .

Teens who perceived reality television as realistic were most likely to hold these perceptions

The paper's authors are Nicole Martins, an assistant professor of telecommunications in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, and Robin Jensen, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Utah.

"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, according to the news release.

Frequent viewers of the programs also were more likely to believe that teen moms have affordable access to health care, finished college and lived on their own

"Our data call into question the content of teen mom reality programming," they added, according to the news release. "Heavy viewing of teen mom reality programming positively predicted unrealistic perceptions of what it is like to be a teen mother." Whereas it would be inappropriate to suggest that viewing these programs is the cause of teen pregnancy, one might consider it a contributing factor."

Professor Nicole Martins, the lead author, and Jensen were unable to ask the 185 high school students surveyed about sexual behavior. But they were able to ask about their perceptions of reality TV and teen pregnancy.

Students were asked about their perceptions of reality TV and teen pregnancy

"The fact that teens in the study seemed to think that being a teen parent was easy might increase the likelihood that they'll engage in unsafe sexual practices," Martins explained according to the news release, "because that's not a real consequence to them."

MTV recently announced that "Teen Mom 3" will not be renewed for next season. However, the more successful franchise sequel, "Teen Mom 2," will return with a fifth season Jan. 20. Both programs spun off from an earlier series, "16 and Pregnant." They have been among the network's highest rated shows.

"As you study reality television with younger populations, you're going to find that younger children are going to have a harder time understanding that this is something that is scripted, edited and put together in a purposeful way to create a narrative and a drama," Martins said, according to the news release. "Indeed, there are some individuals who believe that this reality TV show is like real life. For them, they were the most likely ones to hold unrealistic perception about teen parenthood."

The professors were somewhat surprised by the findings

Martins said the initial program, "16 and Pregnant," seemed to do a better job of focusing on the harsh realities faced by the teen moms, according to the news release. But the subsequent series, "Teen Mom," turned some of the young women into celebrities who end up on the cover of tabloid magazines.

"Maybe that's what's drawing viewers' attention: the fact that one of the teen moms, Farrah Abraham, repeatedly is on the cover of Us Weekly for all the plastic surgery that she's had. Well, a teen mom living in this country can't afford that; most unmarried teen mothers are on welfare," Martins explained according to the news release.

It's possible that teens desire the celebrity status afforded to the shows' teen mothers, which makes a larger impression on their perceptions of the teen mom experience than does the real-life narratives being broadcast

"In other words, the attention and opportunities seemingly thrown at these teen parents may appear so appealing to viewers that no amount of horror stories from the reality shows themselves can override them," the professors wrote, according to the news release.

Industry estimates have suggested that the primary stars of "Teen Mom" received more than $60,000, as well as other commercial considerations. In contrast, 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.

Students in the study attended schools that were chosen because demographically, the median annual household income and racial makeup of each school was consistent with the national average: $52,000 and 80 percent white. Participants ranged in age from 14 to 18. There were nearly even numbers of boys and girls.

Eighty percent of the young men said they never watched "16 and Pregnant" or "Teen Mom," but 58 percent of the young women reported they sometimes or always watched the shows

Interestingly, the impact of exposure to these programs affected young men and women similarly. Even though more young women than men watched the shows, the effect between exposure and perceptions remained significant when gender was statistically controlled.

"This study makes a valuable contribution because it links exposure to specific content -- teen mom reality programming -- to teens' perceptions of teen motherhood," the professors concluded. "While it would be inappropriate to suggest that viewing these programs is the cause of teen pregnancy, one might consider it a contributing factor."