No glamour in being young and knocked up

ASSOCIATED PRESS Teen moms: Maci Bookout, Farrah Abraham and Catelynn Lowell.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Teen moms: Maci Bookout, Farrah Abraham and Catelynn Lowell.
Posted: January 16, 2014

WELL, WELL, WELL. Who knew that "16 and Pregnant," the hit MTV show about knocked-up girls and the boys who got them that way, would be of value to society? And not in that guilty pleasure, "OMG, what's the deal with Maci this week?!" kind of way.

A new study shows that the 5-year-old reality fest (which birthed the high-angst "Teen Mom" spin-off series) prevented more than 20,000 births to teens in 2010. The authors of the study, published Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research, analyzed a combo of Nielsen ratings, birth records, Google searches and Twitter messages to arrive at their findings, which reviewers have concluded are solid.

The study puts to rest the worry that when "16 and Pregnant" launched, the show would glamorize teen parenthood among the millions of viewers the program now attracts.

Instead, it seems, viewers have learned that being young and unprepared for child-rearing pretty much sucks.

The teen moms and dads in "16 and Pregnant" deal with exhaustion, pissed-off parents, wrecked romantic relationships, busted social lives, financial dreariness and endless obstacles to finishing high school, entering college or finding a good job and affordable apartment.

Basically, the study found, a lot of viewers find watching the show akin to ingesting a really potent contraceptive, without the icky side effects. As one viewer tweeted, "Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant are birth control for me . . . That s--- makes me never want kids."

Touche, MTV!

True, teen birth rates have been dropping over the last two decades anyway, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Between 1991 and 2012, the rate declined 63 percent for non-Hispanic black teens, 56 percent for Hispanic teens and 53 percent for non-Hispanic white teens.

The 6 percent teen-birth decline in 2012 followed an 8 percent decline in 2011 and a 9 percent decline in 2010 - the largest single-year decline in teen births since the 1940s.

Notably, 2010 was the first full year that the MTV shows were on the air.

Front-line teen-pregnancy warriors have taken note.

"I see more young people far more willing to use condoms than they were 20 years ago," says Lisa Fraser, a community educator with Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania. "Today, their attitude toward condom use is more like, 'Well, why wouldn't you use one?' "

Fraser and her colleague Wayne Grinwis say they've used "16 and Pregnant" and the "Teen Mom" spin-offs to launch conversations with teens, but not necessarily about teen pregnancy. Instead, they use the shows' brutal look-see into real teens' lives to help young people recognize healthy and unhealthy communication and behavior in their own relationships.

They wish more adults used the show as a way to do the same for the teens in their lives.

"We talk a lot about the need for trusted, 'askable' adults" for teens, says Fraser. "Someone a teen can go to for help finding answers that are comprehensive, medically accurate and age-appropriate."

Medical accuracy is on Dr. Arnold Cohen's mind, too, when it comes to the influence of the MTV shows. Cohen, a veteran OB-GYN at Albert Einstein Medical Center who has treated countless adolescents, says it's "terrific" news that increased education, as doled out in "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom," appears to have resulted in decreased teen pregnancy.

What he wishes the shows would include, given their clearly rapt audiences, is frequent and honest information about methods of birth control that are proving really effective for the teens who use them.

"We have to help young people become more comfortable with the idea of safe, long-acting and reversible birth control" - like the IUD, which can last up to 10 years, and Nexplanon, which lasts four to five years - says Cohen. "These methods are a big part of the reason the teen birth rate has declined. They're easy to use and the woman doesn't have to think about them."

That last part is crucial. Most teens who get pregnant admit they "weren't thinking" about becoming moms when they conceived. It just happened. And even though it's happening less than it did 10 years ago, America still has the highest rate of teen births in the developed world.

So if watching MTV gets young women to delay sexual activity or start using birth control to avoid a crash-and-burn life as portrayed in "16 and Pregnant," well, bring on Season 5.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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