Opinion Web Exclusive

16 & Pregnant serves as both terrible television, effective teen pregnancy PSA

We all know that one show on MTV (which, as a general reminder to MTV’s production team, stands for Music Television) that’s generated more buzz than “Jersey Shore,” “The Real World” or any of their on-air music videos ever could. It’s the same show on which that one guy bought his pregnant girlfriend an engagement ring at Walmart, then returned it later because he wanted to use the money to buy an Xbox.

“16 and Pregnant”, one of MTV’s most infamous reality shows to date, has been creating controversies since 2009. As its self-evident title would suggest, “16 and Pregnant” follows the lives of pregnant teenage women and their bumbling male counterparts. Expectedly, the show has garnered a significant amount of criticism.

Some claimed that the show’s popularity seemed to dilute its original message. Today contributor Ashley Majeski wrote that in light of the show’s gargantuan success, many of the previously impoverished teen moms have wound up on the other side of the payscale: “As the media’s obsession with the moms grew, so did the young women’s paychecks. No longer were they struggling to find money to buy diapers; they were buying houses, breast implants and more, all thanks to their MTV salaries.”

“Instead of really helping viewers understand the day-to-day responsibilities of attending to a new infant — scrubbing poop stains or spit-up out of clothing — or dwelling on the ‘mundane,’ MTV chooses to focus on the girls’ volatile relationships with the babies’ fathers or their new body piercings and tattoos,” Parents Television Council Director Melissa Henson wrote on CNN. “That makes for better TV.”

Many suggested that “16 and Pregnant” glorified teenage pregnancy through the fame cast members earned, and others hated it because it was a reality show on MTV. However, in the show’s original, pre-fame form, others feel “16 and Pregnant” served as one of society’s most tangible examples of how devastating unplanned pregnancies can be.

“The way pregnancy and parenthood are portrayed isn’t glorified or glamorous,” said Amy Kramer of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “It’s up-front and honest. I don’t think you can sit through any episode and say, ‘Wow, that looks awesome.’ “

Bill Albert, Chief Program Officer for The National Campaign, was reported by The Washington Times as having said, “one could make the argument that these are the best teen-pregnancy-prevention public service announcements ever made.”

Today, the numbers are in.

A study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the polarizing reality show ultimately led to a 5.7 percent reduction in teenage pregnancy 18 months after its television debut. Researchers concluded that this drop accounts for one-third of the overall decline in teenage births.

It wasn’t due to Obamacare, or better healthcare coverage, or even Juno. Researchers took to the biggest platform for unfiltered, unapologetic, cringeworthy teenage honesty — the Internet. On Twitter, they tracked the volume of hashtags like “#abortion” and “#birthcontrol” mentioned in tweets about the show. On Google, researchers Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine geographically pinpointed areas with high search and tweet activity for the show and then took the data to Nielsen to verify that such areas had a high volume of viewership.

In the areas with a concentrated volume of online interest, those who had searched the web for “16 and Pregnant” had later searched for things like “abortion,” “birth control” and the like. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t reported that a higher volume of searches like “abstinence” or “how the heck can I stop doing this super fun cardio workout” were found. Teens are still having sex, but at least they’re taking the implications more seriously.

Until there’s a reality show that makes sex out to be some sort of ghastly undesirable that causes warts, dramatic weight gain and painful urination (ironically, all true), we’ll still be living in a world where our youngest citizens are producing even younger ones. Frankly, that’d probably make for excellently crass television. MTV, I demand my fair share of the rights.

“The results of our analysis indicate that exposure to ’16 and Pregnant’ was high and that it had an influence on teens’ thinking regarding birth control and abortion,” wrote Kearney and Levine.

Though the news that MTV has had a positive effect on society is groundbreaking enough, Kearney noted that teens’ social media presence served as some of the most captivating evidence: “The text of the tweets are phenomenal: ‘This reminds me to take my birth control.’ ‘Watching “16 and Pregnant,” going to take my birth control,’ ” recalled Kearney.

Most don’t have too many ideological issues with birth control, but abortion is a dramatically different story. Though the findings of Kearney and Levine are being widely received as a positive, many will undoubtedly see it as nothing more than an increase in abortions. According to research published by the Guttmacher Institute, roughly half of the pregnancies among American women are unintended, and four in 10 of said pregnancies end in abortion.

Assuming that the rate of teens having sex has stayed the same (the study published no findings on the subject), the results of Kearney and Levine’s work suggest an increase in teenage abortions that isn’t balanced out by a decrease in teen sex. Adoption remains a universally pacifying option, but its popularity has plummeted in recent years. Kristi Burton Brown, correspondent with LifeNews wrote, “Adoption statistics are hard to track, since states are not necessarily required to report domestic adoptions. However, the numbers are grim, and much of it is owing to abortion.”

Business Library reported “there are up to 36 couples waiting for every one baby placed for adoption.”

Guiliana Rancic of E! Entertainment, who has been outwardly public on her struggles with fertility, shared personal difficulty she has enjoying the MTV reality behemoth.

“I would go, ‘I’m a good person, and I could give someone the greatest life of all, but yet I can’t get pregnant.’ And then you watch these TV shows, ’16 and Pregnant,’ and these girls who want nothing to do with their babies are pregnant,” Rancic shared. “And you’re going, ‘What?’”

“None of that made sense to me.”

Senior staff columnist Cara Smith is a communications junior and may be reached at [email protected]

Leave a Comment