Can the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant keep teens from conceiving?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Feb. 22 2010 10:00 AM

Does MTV's 16 and Pregnant Keep Girls From Getting Pregnant?

 Or does it just exploit the teen moms on the show?

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And what about the boys? Curiously, the Ohio State study showed that watching the narrative program had a negative effect on young male viewers, who were "much less likely to increase their intentions to use birth control" after viewing the preggo drama on The O.C. Irresponsible young men are a recurring theme on 16 and Pregnant as well. With the exception of menschy Tyler from Season 1, who stuck by girlfriend Catelynn through the birth of their daughter Carly and her subsequent adoption, the baby's daddies portrayed on the show are pretty uniformly losers and jerks. The father of Jenelle's son spends a week in jail on a DUI charge immediately after Jace is born. Yet somehow, it's the girls who are ultimately made examples of.

 I recently met with two teens who will appear on upcoming episodes of 16 and Pregnant, Chelsea from South Dakota and Lori from Ohio. They had both watched the first season yet had not at all digested the notion that they were going to be starring in a national morality play. Watching Jenelle's episode put the issue in focus for the girls—and they were terrified. Chelsea, a tan brunette with long glossy hair who says she has a rocky relationship with the father of her daughter, says it made her scared for her episode to air. "I feel like people are going to judge [Jenelle]. What are people going to say about me?"

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Lori, a soft blonde with big features and ornately manicured nails, was also anxious about her episode airing, but seemed to have considered privacy issues more than Chelsea had. Her mother is the one who signed her up to be on 16 and Pregnant, and Lori—an adoptee whose son has been adopted—said no to the show at first, because it was too invasive. But she relented because she wanted to show other teens that open adoption is a viable option. * "I did the show so people could relate to me," Lori says. Certainly some teens will be sympathetic to Lori, who had a charming vulnerability about her. But along with the kindred spirits will surely be the haters, and they will unleash their vitriol on the Internet and possibly even in person.

"Do I think they're doing themselves and their children a disservice [by appearing on the show]? I don't know," says Amy Kramer, director of entertainment media and audience strategy for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. According to executive producer Freeman, the subjects of 16 and Pregnant are financially compensated for their time, though he says he doesn't know the details of what they receive. "I don't think there's anything of an exploitative nature in what we're doing," Freeman says. He is adamant that the casting people weed out any potential subjects who just want to be on TV, because he is searching for a deeper truth. "We do our best to show a very unvarnished and honest portrayal of their experience."

Freeman is right—the show is far from whitewashed. That's precisely why it's such good TV. But maybe essential truth isn't in the best interest of these girls, for whom excising some of their most unpleasant moments could be the equivalent of a televised white lie. It would not have made Jenelle's experience seem any less difficult if the producers had left the part where she tells her mother to "get the fuck out of my face" on the cutting room floor. However, especially for girls who are already pregnant, the show can provide a valuable lifeline. Chelsea says she signed up for the show because she was inspired by Maci and Farrah, pregnant teens from the first season. Watching the show gave Chelsea strength. It's unclear whether appearing on the show will result in such a positive outcome.

Correction, Feb. 22, 2010: The piece originally stated that Tyler and Catelynn from season 1 had a closed adoption. They did not. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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