Jenelle, the young subject of the latest episode of the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant, which aired on Feb. 16, is a spectacularly surly new mother. Before she gives birth to son Jace, Jenelle says in her thick North Carolinian accent that she imagines motherhood will be like "dressin' up a doll every day." But when the baby comes, it's not like her fantasy at all. Jenelle's "alcoholic," ex-model boyfriend refuses to visit and calls her a "piece of crap" repeatedly, and her mother is constantly haranguing her for going out clubbing and leaving the baby at home. Toward the end of the hourlong episode, Jenelle openly regrets having a baby while still in high school. She says to a friend, "Imagine bein' in prison. That's what [motherhood is] like, bein' in prison."
If Jenelle sounds like a cautionary tale, it's because 16 and Pregnant explicitly intends to portray her as one. The extremely popular show, now in its second season, and its spin-off, Teen Mom, are designed to deter adolescents from becoming mothers—a relevant issue as teen-pregnancy rates are up for the first time in more than a decade. The shows, which follow adolescent mothers as they struggle to raise their children, are produced in partnership with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. The organization distributes free copies of the first season of the show along with discussion guides to put the drama in context.
16 and Pregnant executive producer Morgan J. Freeman calls the show a powerful public service, and it is undeniably dramatic and intense: The girls rage at their mothers and their hapless boyfriends whine on the sidelines as they struggle to raise their infants. The show also has an impressive reach: Jenelle's upsetting episode was more popular than the Winter Olympics among women under 34. But its strength as a public service is more questionable. Can a television show really convince teens that they should wait to become mothers? And even if it can, is it worth the cost of offering up a handful of young women as public examples during perhaps the most vulnerable period of their lives?
There is actually data to support the notion that a dramatic, narrative show like 16 and Pregnant could make adolescent girls more likely to use contraception. A recent study from Ohio State University showed that college-age women who watched an episode of The O.C. depicting a pregnancy scare were more likely to try to use birth control than women who watched a show in a news format about the hardships of teen motherhood. "[I]f you vicariously experience a bad result happening to you by watching a narrative program, that may change behavior in a way that is difficult to achieve through a direct message," wrote co-author Emily Moyer-Gusé. This principle has been proven and tested in many countries that use soap operas to spread public-service messages. A 2007 study showed that in rural India, women who watched soap operas with empowering story lines were more likely to say that wife-beating was unacceptable and were more likely to send their female children to school.
But at what price does 16 and Pregnant get this message across? As an adult viewer, I cringed while watching Jenelle's painful relationship unravel. Because she is a minor, I worried about the repercussions she would face for putting her life out there and wondered whether she could really understand the consequences. The cruel comments on MTV's Web site—"You suck as a person and are a horrible mom"—are only a small part of what Jenelle and the other subjects of the show must face. Appearing on reality TV makes your entire life public fodder on a scale much bigger than just a Facebook page, as this blog post about Jenelle's alleged marijuana use makes clear.
While MTV aims to send a good message with earnest shows about teen motherhood, the message gets muddled when it is in the context of the network's other reality programming. Commercials for the current season of 16's sister show, Teen Mom, ran around the same time as the reality juggernaut Jersey Shore, which depicted consequence-free carousing. Why, a teenager may wonder, is Jenelle's beach-bunny act so terrible when it looks like Snooki has so much fun behaving in a similar manner?