Does Media Affect Teen Pregnancy?

by Hillary Silvers

Does Media Affect Teen Pregnancy?

With the increasing media coverage of television programming, such as MTV’s hit reality television shows Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant, there appears to be an increased and wide-spread controversy over the benefits or detriments cast upon teenage audiences viewing this type of programming. The debate has grown in popularity, creating interesting viewpoints from religious leaders, government officials and the very family members affected by teenage pregnancy. Are the known or unknown effects of teenage pregnancy—with its documented and far-reaching family, socio-economic, and psychological effects—fully understood and taken into consideration by media producers such as MTV? Does media television depict teenage pregnancy as a glamorous gig, filled with the attention and stardom that many teenagers crave? The objective of this research paper is to examine research in an attempt to answer these questions, and provide a conclusion to the question: Does media affect teen pregnancy?

In order to attempt to answer this research question, the following content will provide a combination of statistical data and expert opinions from those who study teenage pregnancy. In conclusion, the accumulation of multiple viewpoints and data is expected to provide a clear answer to the question posed in this research paper.


To be certain, when most people review the eye-opening statistics regarding teenage pregnancy, a variety of emotional responses are produced. Feelings of shock, disbelief, joy, empathy, anger, shame, happiness, guilt, and possibly even pre-conceived and stirred-up biases can be triggered. A multitude of emotional responses stem from a multitude of conditions, situations, beliefs, and characters. The variety of feelings and reactions can be blurry and misunderstood; however, when coupled with statistical data on teenage pregnancy, the picture becomes quite clear. Teenage pregnancy affects approximately 750,000 teen girls age fifteen to nineteen every year (Sun). That’s roughly equivalent to one in three U.S. teenage girls becoming pregnant every year, which is a staggering statistic.

The good news is that teenage pregnancy rates have been dropping. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teen birth rates in the U.S. dropped last year to the lowest they have been in about seventy years (McMahon). According to the latest teenage pregnancy data, birth rates have steadily decreased from 2008 to 2010, with 34.3 births per 1,000 teenagers and young adults ages fifteen to nineteen recorded in 2010 according to a Nov. 17 Reuters article. Those numbers represent a nine percent drop from the previous year—considered a significant reduction by experts in the field.


Since reaching a peak in 1991, the teenage pregnancy rate had dropped forty-four percent prior to 2006. Then, with a sudden and unfathomable cause, the teenage pregnancy rate spiked in 2006 and 2007. Coincidentally, MTV’s controversial teen pregnancy reality shows were launching around the same time, prompting many to question just how this type of programming was affecting teens’ sexual habits.


MTV reality shows such as 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom depict the realities of being a pregnant teenager and a young, single mother. Lauren Dolgen, the creative mind behind the hit MTV reality shows, promotes them as having an agenda to attempt to reduce teen pregnancies, saying “Absolutely. I mean, this (teenage pregnancy) is an epidemic, but it’s a preventable epidemic” (Conan).


Some experts agree that there can be no relevant cause-and-effect relationship attached to the MTV reality shows and the short-term spike in teenage pregnancy rates registered in 2006 and 2007. Bill Albert, chief program officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in Washington, D.C., offered, “As far as I’m concerned, they are among the most effective teen pregnancy prevention PSAs ever made. Anyone who has watched the show knows it shows a very gritty reality of teen pregnancy…There’s nothing glamorous about those young people’s lives” (McMahon).


Albert might have a good point. Based on a teen survey his organization conducted in 2009, a vast majority (eighty-seven percent) of teens who watched the MTV show 16 and Pregnant reported that they felt the show helped demonstrate to them the true hardships that teenage pregnancy can bring to both girls and boys. In contrast, very few (seventeen percent) felt the show actually glorified teen pregnancy.

Leslie Kantor, national director of education initiatives for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, also weighed in on the positive aspects of the MTV reality shows. She said that the 2009 survey also showed that forty percent of teenagers who viewed an episode of 16 and Pregnant ended up talking with one or two parents about the show and about the reality of teenage pregnancy. Kantor responded by saying, “Any show that provides an opportunity to get more direction from a responsible adult, whether it’s a parent or an educator—that’s a terrific opportunity” (Sun).


Another proponent of the sexual programming aimed at teens is Sarah Brown, CEO for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Ms. Brown shared that both polls and specific studies conducted with teens who watched the sexual programming demonstrated that “over eighty percent of teens who had watched the show said it really showed them the consequences, the hardships, and the difficulty of getting pregnant early. And their intent to avoid it (sex) increased” (Conan). Her promotion of the reality shows mirrors that of others who say the true reality helps stir the true life consequences inside pre-adolescents’ brains. Adds Brown, “What I like about these shows is that, again, they’re real. They’re not some middle-aged woman delivering a sex-ed lecture. They’re not some news report on the phenomenon. They don’t have graphs and tables. They’re very real” (Conan).


Proponents of the reality shows say that our youth generation has grown up on similar reality television. The non-actor reality and true life portrayal of situations stays with them. Just a video game and Apple technology has shaped their world, so has reality TV. Brown goes on to explain, saying, “I think it packs a reality to them that just cannot be re-created in a classroom. And so we often call these shows sort of sex-ed in the twenty-first century. And it’s in a medium that young people like. It’s not a lecture with a blackboard. It’s on television, online, in a media environment that teens live in” (Conan).


From sources selected, there appear to be a minority of opponents who condemn the MTV ideals of sexual programming. Marcia Powers-Dunlop, chief of social work with the Toronto District School Board’s northwest region is one such non-promoter. However misguided the notion seems, Powers-Dunlop says that some teens “no longer think there’s a big deal” about having sex—and so, presumably, getting pregnant. She goes on to say that, “There’s a lot of ramifications to separating and divorcing, and parents having new partners but not getting married. There’s a message that this is a natural,” she explains. “It’s no longer love, then sex” (Gulli).


Andrea O’Reilly, a women’s studies professor at York University in Toronto and director of the Association for Research on Mothering, provides another interesting twist to the heated debate. “As an idea, teen pregnancy is more socially accepted. There’s a redefining of motherhood,” says O’Reilly. “Teen moms are saying, ‘why can’t I be a mother now?’” (Gulli). Ms. O’Reilly is convinced our culture is redefining itself, especially women. “Before, the time of motherhood was so restricted. Now it’s okay at forty-eight. So why not at eighteen” (Gulli)? O’Reilly identifies this mindset change as a new type of feminist motherhood movement, relating that there is growing cultural support for mothers of all ages. “It’s part of a larger re-visioning of motherhood: queer mothers, old mothers, young mothers. That wasn’t possible 20 years ago” (Gulli).


If O’Reilly’s theory proves correct, then there might be a definitive answer to the research question, “Does Media Affect Teen Pregnancy?” The answer would be NO, because cultural norms have changed. Television programming hasn’t influenced teens’ actions, but rather teens’ actions have influenced programming.


Not so fast, says Bill Albert, deputy director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Albert maintains that social norms are definitely shaped by star culture. He warns, “The Britneys of this world and the Angelina Jolies may have an effect. To ignore it would be Pollyannaish” (Gulli). Ms. O’Reilly agrees, offering, “The glamour and romance quickly goes when you’re having morning sickness or in childbirth for two days. That whole [Hollywood mom] culture worries me,” she continues, “because that’s not how motherhood is” (Gulli).


The intent of this research paper was to provide compelling evidence, through diligent source reviews, to answer the question, Does Media Affect Teen Pregnancy?


This topic is fascinating to many individuals and organizations. In the U.S. alone, there are approximately 750,000 girls age fifteen to nineteen that become pregnant every year. The sheer enormity of the life and health issues these young pregnancies create is difficult to figure. It is enough to say, whenever the teenage pregnancy rates decline, there is much media coverage involved (as noted within the source reviews).


Does MTV and other media agents have a social responsibility toward their content? Movies have been restrained with more rigid viewer ratings, warning labels, and theater ID checks. Do these actions help to reduce young viewers being exposed to sexually open content? How easy is it to receive sext messages, view pornography on a computer screen, or sneak a peek at mother and father’s adult magazines?


The real conclusion that comes to this research is that no medium can be “blamed” for creating an action. What makes a sixteen-year-old want to drive fast, experiment with sex, or try drugs? Is it because that young person watched a chase scene in an action movie, saw someone get high at a party, or watched a sex scene in an R-rated DVD movie?


In conclusion, there is more good that comes from exposure and truth than from hidden untruths. As parents and mentors look to educate youth and help them understand ramifications for actions chosen, our youth will choose more wisely. There is no need to glorify being pregnant at a young age. Step inside their world and demonstrate the truth to them. No glorification is needed. They are intelligent. They will get the true message.