As a college administrator circa 1993 I volunteered at an inner city high school that guaranteed graduating students a college scholarship. One of many conditions was girls could not have a baby before they graduated.
That rule penalized pregnant girls but not fathers, who could have graduated with a scholarship no matter how many children they fathered. To be more fair and help the girls fathers should have lost their scholarships also.
One day a woman called me saying everyone was telling her she was no long qualified for that scholarship because she’d dropped out of school to have her baby.
“I love my baby, but …,” she said. I didn’t hear the rest.
There was nothing I could do about that scholarship, so I connected her with advisors in our women’s resource center who could assist her. I never heard from her again.
I’m haunted by the image of a trapped teenage mother with dreams of college hugging her trusting baby as she thinks “I love you, but …”
Staff at that school were frustrated they were unable to get parents involved. Those hopeful teenage girls were handicapped by too little support from parents and too much pressure for sex.
Now comes news that teenage girls might be avoiding unwanted pregnancies after watching a popular and controversial documentary series, 16 and Pregnant, produced by MTV since 2009.
Each MTV episode follows the emotional ups and downs of a16-year-old mother through an unexpected pregnancy, deliver and child care the first few weeks. Viewers get close-ups on the joys of motherhood along with problems staying in school, changes in relationships, fights with boyfriends, anger of family members and facing uncertain futures.
A sequel called Teen Mom covered life after the birth with vivid views of mothers raising newborns. Both shows are top rated shows for MTV and past episodes are available online.
People at the women’s college of Wellesley and researchers at Hamilton Project in Washington DC wondered if the show glorified or reduced teenage pregnancies.
Their report published by the Bureau of Economic Research in January 2014 shows teen pregnancy rates dropped during 18 months from 2009-10 in those regions with the most viewers.
Researchers think the show helped lower the rate because in those regions where viewership was spiking, Internet traffic on contraception, pregnancy and unsafe sex were higher on Google, Twitter, and Facebook.
“It’s a substantial and important finding,” said Diane Schansenbach, Associate Professor at Northwestern University and a researcher on the impact of public policies on children.
The results are consistent with past surveys of parents and teens. Early critics believed the show would glorify teenage pregnancies and pregnancy rates would go up. Common Sense Media, a non-profit watchdog for parents and educators about sex and violence on TV disapproved of the show in 2011. Interestingly, on their website adult reviewers gave it three stars out of five while teenagers rated it higher at four stars.
Importantly the shows were carefully done. The MTV executive who created and developed the shows, Lauren Dolgen told CNN, “To make sure we handled the nuanced issue responsibly, we partnered with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy from the outset.”
The National Campaign published a survey in 2012 showing teenagers trusted and liked the show. The 1,008 teenagers aged 12-19 who had watched 16 & Pregnant overwhelmingly said it described the real obstacles of teenage pregnancy, made them think about the challenges and created conversations with their parents.
The show is still controversial, because some of the early participants became famous and made money off their pregnancies and the language is profane (teen reality).
On the whole, results show the episodes raised awareness about the problems with unwanted teenage pregnancies, informed teenagers about sex and pregnancies, led to family conversations and helped teenagers avoid pregnancies. If you know somebody with teenage children, recommend the teenagers watch episodes with the parents.
I wish we had that resource 20 years ago. Maybe I would have talked with the woman asking for advice on college as she hugged her scholarship paperwork instead of her baby.