MTV’s hit reality programs ‘Teen Mom’ and ’16 and Pregnant’ have had a polarizing effect. It goes beyond a “love it” or “hate it” split, viewers and critics (some of which have never actually watched the programs) debate whether or not the shows glamorize teen pregnancy, or if they help to prevent teen pregnancy by showing how hard the struggle can be.
But what determines the way you perceive the shows when you watch them?
Paul Wright, an assistant professor of telecommunications at the Indiana University College of Arts and Sciences, conducted a study, which will appear in the journal Sexuality & Culture, looking for the answers.
When the programs were under development, MTV sought the consultation of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. As such, one would imagine that the intent of the programming is to help prevent teen pregnancy. During each episode there is information on how to avoid teen pregnancy, which they remind viewers is “100 percent preventable”.
However, when Wright watched the shows himself, he felt that they sent mixed messages on teen pregnancy.
“The programs were developed to show young women how difficult it is to be a teen mom,” said Wright. “They were intended to be program-length public service announcements discouraging teen pregnancy.”
“But critics said the programs sent mixed messages. My viewing of the programs suggested the same,” Wright said. “On one hand, the programs do show many of the difficulties teen mothers face. But on the other hand, they sometimes seem to send the message that getting pregnant was all for the best.”
“The hypothesis driving our study was that the family background of the viewer might determine whether they focused on the negatives or the positives,” Wright said.
Wright collected data from 313 unmarried undergraduate students at two universities. About 40 percent were 19 or younger. About 75 percent were 21 or younger.
What Wright’s research revealed was that frequent viewers of the programs whose fathers often communicated about sex with them while they were growing up where least likely to have recently had sex, while those whose fathers rarely communicated with their daughters about sex while they were growing up were the most likely to have recently had sex.
Wright added, “Fathers who communicate with daughters about sex are especially apt to talk about the negatives of premarital sex, to speak of males’ propensity for placing sexual pressure on females, and to point out the consequences that result from the risky sexual behavior of others.”
“Females who have been regularly sent these types of messages should be especially likely to attend to the negatives of being a young mother depicted on ’16 and Pregnant’ and ‘Teen Mom,'” Wright said.
Although no interaction was found in the study between mother-daughter sexual communication, viewing frequency and recent intercourse behavior, it doesn’t mean that those communications are not important or have no impact.
“In this study, there was only what we call an ‘interaction’ for fathers,” Wright said. “But this doesn’t mean that mother-daughter communication is irrelevant. There are other studies showing that the more moms communicate about sex, the less likely it is their daughters will either have sex or engage in risky sex.”
Co-authors on the paper are Ashley K. Randall, a Ph.D. candidate in family studies and human development, and Analisa Arroyo, a Ph.D. candidate in communication, both at the University of Arizona.