Being a 22 year-old senior in college, one of my favorite pastimes, while relaxing, working out, or just procrastinating, is watching trashy television. I mean specifically MTV’s line up of youth pregnancy shows. This television station has come up with an array of television spots directed towards my generation that focus on the trials of being 16 and Pregnant, or a Teen Mom.
These shows follow the lives of young girls between the ages of 15 and 19 as they get pregnant, have a child, and continue life as a young mother. According to an MTV press release, 16 and Pregnant tackles tough issues including strained relationships, balancing school with new responsibilities, gossip, health issues and financial hardships.
My hour at the gym flies by as I get absorbed learning about how this couple failed using birth control properly, or using any at all, and were surprised to become pregnant. I am enthralled by their lack of knowledge on the subject. But then I realize two very important details: the majority of these shows take place in the South, or some small, less progressive region where sex is a taboo subject to discuss, and that I, too, never received comprehensive sexual education while in high school.
I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia and though it was a wonderful place to spend my formative years, it wasn’t the best place to learn how to make healthy decisions regarding my sex life. Sure, my high school health class included a chapter on condoms and healthy relationships, but that was it– one chapter, of a semester long health class, which was also linked with Driver’s Ed.
I grew up surrounded by teen pregnancy.
Each year at least one student from my high school would become pregnant. While at graduation practice my senior year of high school, the girl sitting to my left and the girl sitting behind me were each holding a baby, not even two or three months old yet. In fact, on average three of every 10 girls in the US gets pregnant at least once by the time she turns 20. The STI rates follow this trend as well, with the US having the highest STI numbers of any developed nation.
MTV chose to capitalize on these statistics at the right time. 16 and Pregnant was introduced right around the time that Britney Spears’ younger sister became pregnant and sure enough, a huge media success was created. The United States is not the only place I was face to face with teen pregnancy, however. I studied abroad in Nairobi, Kenya my junior year of college and a part of this program involved having an internship in which I was placed at a home-based care organization for children infected with HIV.
The days I went to work, whether at the office or doing home visits, I would encounter women my age or younger who were pregnant or already had a child. Though I thought the teen pregnancy rates at home were high, being abroad only heightened the situation. Worldwide, approximately 14 million young women between the ages of 15 and 19 give birth each year. In 2008, adolescent women in the developing world had an estimated 14.3 million births, with 14 million of these occurring among young women between the ages of 15 and 19.
These young girls don’t get the majority of services utilized in 16 and Pregnant or Teen Mom. Many young women around the world are unable to access contraception, leaving them at higher risk of having an unintended pregnancy, which may often lead to unsafe abortions. These youth don’t get a television show about their pregnancy or millions of viewers judging their every move. They get an unintended pregnancy, a lack of comprehensive resources, and no magazine cover to follow.
MTV has come under scrutiny recently for glorifying teen pregnancy. Groups have attacked the media for placing the couples involved in the show on the cover of magazines or being interviewed by various news stations. They even blame the popularity of these TV shows on the slight increase in teen pregnancy in the United States since the 1990s.
These groups say putting the “stars” of these reality shows on a magazine cover puts them on the same plane as any actress, singer, or other celebrity –sending a message to young girls that if you get pregnant you can get a TV deal or front page picture. My response to these beliefs? The millions of adolescent women in developing countries that don’t have access to 16 and Pregnant or Teen Mom, yet are becoming pregnant at greater numbers than in the US.
MTV doesn’t make 16 year old girls get pregnant. Nor does putting them on the cover of magazines make me want to run out and have a baby this second. 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom exemplify the need for parents to have open and comprehensive discussions with their children. Education and communication are keys to drastically reducing these rates. Do you think shows like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom can spark the conversation needed to inform youth to make responsible decisions surrounding their sexuality? Do you think these shows can have the same affect on youth in other countries as it does in the US?
Sarah is a graduating senior at American University, studying International Development and Health Promotion. Growing up, she always knew she wanted to work in a health related field, though she was not sure if being a Medical Doctor was the right track for her. It was through her time at AU that has led her down more of an activist path, focusing on Global HIV/AIDS rights and educating the youth about the topic to help assuage the stigma that is so common with the disease. Through many classes and involvement through clubs and internships, her knowledge about HIV began to develop and she knew working in the youth sexual health and rights movement was the path for her. For the past year, Sarah has been a member of the International Youth Leadership Council with Advocates for Youth. After graduation, Sarah hopes to continue her work as an advocate for youth SRHR issues.