“Underage and Pregnant: What Can We Do” by Sheila A. Kistler

Posted: June 3, 2013 in Vol. 3: Spring Essays 2013

file2851306949895Young women in the United States are taught to finish high school, go to college, find a good career and settle down with a spouse to have a family. Sadly, many teens in this country get pregnant and give birth every year.  “In 2009, approximately 410,000  teens aged 15-19 gave birth in the United States, and the teen birth rate remains higher than in other developed countries,” a fact that has been true for far too long (Kann 414). It is generally accepted that teen pregnancy is not ideal; the common phrase you hear along with teen pregnancy is “babies having babies.” MTV has two television programs that focus on teen pregnancy, teen motherhood and the hardships that go along with it: 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom. MTV has argued that these shows help to curb teen pregnancy by showing the realities of being a pregnant teen and a teenage mother. The network claims that the rate of teen pregnancy has dropped since their first show, 16 & Pregnant, premiered in June 2009. More recently, however, many critics of the show have argued that it glamorizes teen pregnancy. Specifically, these critics argue that the show Teen Mom actually does not showcase the realities of being a teenage mother because the girls in the show are getting paid by MTV and do not have to work; this is in stark contrast to teenage mothers that are not featured on a hit television show. This paper will further examine these television shows and the claims made by both the network and critics of the network and their portrayal of teen pregnancy and motherhood. I will also go into detail about the different factors that make teen pregnancy and motherhood difficult. I will discuss the effectiveness of educational programs aimed at decreasing the rate of teen pregnancy in the U.S. Teen pregnancy and motherhood is a national issue because often-times these young girls need some form of government assistance, such as welfare or WIC. We cannot ignore this issue and hope it just goes away; we have to get to the heart of it and find effective ways to prevent teen pregnancy. This cannot and will not be done by ignoring the issue; we have to face it head on despite that fact that it may not be comfortable to talk about. Effective education programs in our public schools are a great way to educate teenagers directly. Not all teenagers watch MTV, and shows like 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom can only reach a certain amount of teens. Teenage pregnancy will never go away; the best we can do is educate and hope our teens will get the message.

In June, 2009 I was 19 going on 20, not so much of a teenager anymore, fascinated by MTV’s first season of 16 & Pregnant. I remember thinking how thankful I was that I had made it through my teenage years without so much as a pregnancy scare. I had always been taught to practice safe sex and that there were many avenues for me to obtain contraception. It was my best friend who told me about the show and every week we watched it together; each week we became more grateful that the hardest part of our lives was making it to all of our college classes on time. It seemed MTV had succeeded in its mission, that is, until having a popular show became more important than their original goal of prevention. “MTV has a long history of taking sexual health issues head-on through campaigns such as “It’s Your (Sex) Life” and documentary series such as “True Life.” So, after many meetings with internal groups and consulting experts on the topic, “16 and Pregnant” was born [sic]” (Dolgen). MTV argued that it made this show in an effort to curb the rising rate of teen pregnancy. They wanted to show that being a pregnant teen is difficult and changes your life drastically forever. Specifically, they aimed to showcase the money struggles these girls face as their due date approaches and the relationship issues they face with both their own family and the family of the baby’s father. At the end of each episode MTV gave the name of a website (itsyoursexlife.org) dedicated to helping young women learn about safe sex and ways they can procure contraception. “These candid glimpses inside the trials of young parents apparently are making a mark on youth across America, as the series is being credited with helping to spur a decrease in teen pregnancy” (Dinh). The key word here is candid: 16 & Pregnant is a documentary series, so there shouldn’t be any personal involvement from the people in charge of filming the series.

The series Teen Mom is another documentary series that follows a few of the girls from the 16 & Pregnant series as they raise their young children. One of the biggest criticisms of this particular series is that these girls have already been paid by MTV for appearing on 16 & Pregnant, and as a result their ‘reality’ is skewed because most 16-year-old girls don’t get paid to appear on an MTV show. While MTV does not directly interfere in their lives, because they pay them to appear on their program, the network does affect their lives in a big way. The money they pay the girls takes away one of the biggest issues teenage mothers face in our society. As far as I found, MTV has done nothing to acknowledge this; they continue to film this show despite the fact that it does not accurately depict the typical teenage mother. It’s important to know in detail exactly what makes teen pregnancy and motherhood so difficult for both baby and mother.

Many 16-year-old girls that get pregnant have to rely on financial help from either their families or the state in which they live, or both. Women Infant and Children, or WIC, is a federally funded program which allocates grants to states to help young mothers and their children receive education on nutrition, meals at school and doctor referrals for low income families. Because young mothers struggle to provide for their family, it is harder for them to always have healthy food in the home because it is more expensive than buying cheap, processed food. WIC is intended to help young mothers learn better ways to keep their children healthy and to aid in providing avenues to better nutrition. Many young mothers also need to go on welfare and food stamps to help with the expenses involved with caring for an infant. This makes teen pregnancy an issue of national concern because it is the tax payers that foot the bill for programs like these. During 16 & Pregnant, most of the girls went through the struggles of figuring out how to financially care for themselves and their child, but the few girls that get on Teen Mom don’t exhibit these same problems. Many of the girls are able to afford new cars and their own places to live and day care for their infants. I noticed after the first season of Teen Mom that the girls no longer expressed concern about money, and it’s almost as if MTV is purposefully excluding this issue from their show. This does not show the realities of teen parenthood as the show focuses more on the drama these girls face, like dealing with the baby’s father and fighting with their friends. MTV has strayed from their message of prevention. It is more important for the network to get high ratings and keep their viewership up than it is to continue with their message of showing the hardships of being a teenage mother. Back in 2009, with the premiere of 16 & Pregnant, MTV argued that their show was credited with a decline in teen pregnancy rates: “a report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy recognizes “16 and Pregnant,” specifying that 82 percent of teenagers credit the hit show in helping them understand the challenges that come with unexpected parenthood” (Dinh). I don’t think that MTV can make that argument anymore; their show has left the message of deterrence behind and has shifted their focus to the drama surrounding the girls’ lives they ‘document.’ Also, whatever MTV has to say regarding the effectiveness of their show in advocating prevention is going to be biased because they have to make their show and network look good. Even if they are able to produce statistics, they could have easily funded the research behind them, further adding to that bias. “Some critics say these shows glamorize teen pregnancy, but our survey data shows that’s not the case,” [Albert] point[s] out. “That not only do they not glamorize it, but teens who have seen it suggest it makes the realities of teen parenthood more real to them”(qtd. in Dinh). Here, MTV acknowledges the critics, but insists that ‘their survey data’ says otherwise, proving that they conducted their own ’research’ without using a separate, unbiased source. Other than what MTV has said, I found nothing in my research that supports this claim.

The efforts of MTV aside, this country needs to take a stand against teen pregnancy. Over the past decade states have taken a more proactive approach to preventing teen pregnancy by implementing programs in schools to educate teens about safe sex and available contraceptives. In our country sex has always been a taboo topic, even after sex education began to be integrated into the curriculum of schools in the 1920s. When schools first started educating students about sex, they taught abstinence and that’s pretty much it. That doesn’t take into account the students who have already had sex or the students who plan to have sex, despite schools attempting to teach them otherwise. This type of education may have worked in the beginning, but over the years our culture has moved to accept sex as a part of everyday life. We can no longer ignore that people are going to have sex whether we teach them to or not; this rings especially true for teenagers. An education that acknowledges that teens are having sex is the key to prevention. Once we get past the fact that teenagers are having sex we can aim to make sure they have safe sex. Studies show that teens are more willing to learn about sex in school, among their peers, than to talk to their parents about it. It appears as though teens would rather talk to their parents after they have already had sex and not before. “The percentage of teens who spoke with their parents about methods of birth control was higher among those who had ever had sexual intercourse (females, 70%; males, 64%) rather than among those who had not (females, 48%; males, 35%)” (Kann 417). It’s important that schools have effective programs for students because they are more willing to talk to a teacher or a peer than they are to a parent. I think that schools have caught on to this and are tailoring their sex education programs to teens, because, after all, they are the focus. This is reflected in this statistic: “approximately 60 percent of teenagers between 15 and 19 years old said they used ‘highly effective methods’ in the National Survey of Family Growth- an increase from 47 percent in 1995” (Dell’Antonia). A thirteen percent increase in less than 10 years is huge; it’s clear that more teenagers are getting the message that safe sex is the right thing to do.

Despite our best efforts teenagers will get pregnant; this is something that we will never be able to stop. Cost is not the only issue associated with teenage motherhood; teenagers that have babies are at a much greater risk for subsequent pregnancies than older women. This adds to the social cost of teen pregnancy and makes their lives even harder. “A subsequent pregnancy makes it difficult for young women to return to school, complete a high school education, or attain economic self-sufficiency” (Subramanian S43). Young mothers, more often than not, either find it extremely difficult to finish high school or never graduate at all. Adding another pregnancy to the mix makes it near impossible to accomplish their educational goals. As I stated previously, many teen mothers require some form of monetary assistance whether from their families or from the state; having another baby only furthers that dependence on someone or something else for money. Most sixteen or seventeen-year-olds don’t have a lot of money saved up, if any at all. Many states don’t allow teens to work legally until they are fifteen or sixteen, and even if they do decide to go to work they will most likely end up in a job that pays minimum wage. This makes it near impossible to save up a sufficient amount of money to care for a young infant. Unless the teen had planned the pregnancy, which is not often the case, they don’t plan financially for an infant. In this economy, it is extremely important to have at least an associate’s degree or some sort of certification in a field such as culinary arts, nursing or dental assisting. Teens that become pregnant have a hard enough time completing high school; many of them either never go on to complete some form or higher education, or they begin to and drop out soon thereafter. This creates a vicious cycle: pregnant teens either do not finish high school or just scrape by; they often don’t go on to higher education and therefore have to rely on social services. The best way for them to get off of these social services is to attain some form of higher education to get a better job. “Some programs have aspired to enhance education and employment, thus lessening welfare dependency. Again, the findings are mixed across programs, although there is near unanimous recognition that education is key to self-sufficiency” (Waggoner 537). One of the girls on MTV’s Teen Mom, Chelsea, took well over two years just to complete her GED certification; she went on to enroll in beauty school but took a leave of absence after just a few months of enrollment. Another girl from Teen Mom, Leah, did complete her high school education and eventually enrolled in nursing school but dropped out completely after less than a semester. Prior to dropping out, her class attendance dropped severely and she felt that dropping out was her best option; she has yet to return to nursing school and has no plans to. While these two girls exhibit typical behavior of many teen moms, it’s important to note that despite the fact that their education is minimal, at best, they don’t appear to have any worries about securing steady work to provide for their children. This is not the case for the average teen mother, and MTV does nothing to make this clear to other young women thinking of having children at such a young age. The reality is that the majority of teen moms get stuck in a cycle of low education, low paying jobs and relying on social services. These problems are compounded for every subsequent pregnancy and young mothers are at a high risk for multiple pregnancies in a short period of time.

Struggling teenage mothers and high social costs are not the only symptoms of teen pregnancies; it is also the infants who suffer. Women that are either biologically too young or too old to have children put themselves and their unborn babies at risk for health problems, such as low birth weight, pre-mature births and preeclampsia in the mother. “A large study of over 340,000 British mothers found that teens under the age of 18 were at greater risk for delivering preterm than women 18-35” (Kramer 618).  Babies that are born at a low birth weight struggle in their first few months of life. It’s extremely important that they get their weight up to be able to survive and develop at a normal rate. This also adds to the high social cost because the child often has to stay in the hospital at least a few days longer than usual, which costs the hospital money and uses the resources of the doctors and nurses. Pre-mature births can be very scary for the mother and the newborn baby, who has to live in an incubator until healthy enough to go home with the mother. This can take anywhere from a few days to a few months. Personally, I was born pre-mature and had to live in an incubator for two weeks after my birth, and I know it was very stressful and scary for my family. Babies that are born pre-maturely don’t always survive; sometimes the baby is so small and so underdeveloped that it does not live longer than a few days. Both low birth weight and pre-mature births can be very scary for the mother because the baby is not guaranteed to survive. Until that baby gets better and is able to go home with the mother, they have to call the hospital their home. Preeclampsia means high blood pressure and protein in the urine during pregnancy or childbirth and can be extremely dangerous for the mother and the child. Many women that suffer from preeclampsia have to either have a C-section or be given medicine that speeds up labor because the only way to cure it is to give birth. This is a great example of a risk factor that effects women either biologically too young or too old to give birth; both teens and women over 40 are at the highest risk for preeclampsia. A simplified reason for this is that teenagers’ bodies are not fully developed, which makes it more difficult for their unborn babies to develop as they should and puts a lot of stress on the mother’s body.”Findings collectively suggest that a biological constraint on pregnancy exists at younger ages” (Kramer 620). Leah, one of the girls on Teen Mom, is a perfect example of this sad scenario. One of her twin daughters, Aliannah, is dealing with some developmental issues that result in her legs not developing normally, impeding her ability to walk at the age that most young infants begin to take their first steps (9-12 months). She also has had to wear glasses from a very early age. It is likely that these issues will have long reaching effects that will affect her entire life, not just her infancy. It is not only financially difficult to have a baby at such a young age, but it is also difficult physically, on both the mother and baby; thus adding to the social cost of teen pregnancy.

There are many factors that make teen pregnancy difficult: dependence on social services, difficulty completing educational goals, and negative physical effects for both mother and baby. MTV’s 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom had such potential to be helpful in preventing teen pregnancy. I believe that they squandered an opportunity; the show could have been very helpful for so many. The concern for high ratings and viewership got in the way of what could have been a golden opportunity to educate. Instead, they showcase personal dramas and issues that are in contrast to what real teenage mothers face. “These documentary series tell the honest, unpleasant truth of teen pregnancy in America — the whole truth. It’s not a fairy tale where every girl ends up with the American dream — a loving husband, a white picket fence and the career they’ve always hoped for” (Dolgen). While this may be true, it does not show the reality of many teen pregnancies.  There are much larger concerns than finding the perfect husband or moving into the ideal suburban home. Finding the “perfect” job is near impossible without the proper education, something that teen mothers struggle with. MTV has done this country a huge disservice by not making this crystal clear in their show. I have heard stories about sixteen-year-olds that wish to get pregnant just for the opportunity to be on MTV. Where MTV has failed, our schools and our government can pick up the slack with proven avenues for prevention and increased contraceptive use. “Numerous sex education programs have been shown to be effective in delaying sexual initiation or increasing contraceptive use” (Kann 419).  The most important thing we can do, as a society, is effectively educate our teens about just how hard it is to be young and pregnant and to be a young mother. To MTV’s credit, they do offer a website to all viewers of their show that educates about safe sex. Who is to say if teens actually go to this website, or take it seriously; MTV can do so much more, yet they chose not to. Teen pregnancy is much darker than many girls would like to believe. We all dream of going to college and getting the perfect career, the perfect life. The fact is, teen pregnancy makes this extremely difficult. The best thing we can do is let our young women know how they can stop this from happening.

Works Cited

Dell’Antonia, KJ. “More Teenagers Use a ‘Highly Effective Contraception’.” NYTimes.com. NY Times, 3 May 2012. Web.

Dinh, James. “MTV’s ‘16 & Pregnant’ Credited for Decline in Teen Pregnancy Rates.” MTV.com. MTV, 22 December 2010. Web.

Dolgen, Lauren. “Why I Created MTV’s ’16 & Pregnant’”. CNN.com. CNN, 5 May. 2011. Web.

Kann, L. et. al. “Vital Signs: Teen Pregnancy- United States, 1991-2009.” MMWR: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 60.13(2011): 414-420. Academic Search Premier. 27 Jan 2013. Web.

Kramer, Karen L. and Jane B. Lancaster “Teen Motherhood in Cross-Cultural Perspective.” Annals of Human Biology 37.5(2010):613-628.  Academic Search Premier. 27 Jan 2013.  Web.

Subramanian, Siva, Kathy Katz, Margaret Rodan, Renee Milligan, Sylvia Tan, Lauren Courtney, Marie Gantz, Susan Blake, Lenora McClain, Maurice Davis and Michele Kiely. “Efficacy of A Randomized Cell Phone-Based Counseling Intervention In Postponing Subsequent Pregnancy Among Teen Mothers.” Maternal & Child Health Journal 15.S1 (2011): 42-53. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Apr. 2013.

Waggoner, Sharon, Susan Philliber, Linda Brooks, Linda Phillips Lehrer and Merry Oakley. “Outcomes of Teen Parenting Programs in New Mexico.” Adolescence 38.151(2003): 535-553. Academic Search Premier. 27 Jan 2013. Web.


Written for Dr. Carmen Nolte-Odhiambo’s ENG 200: Composition II

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