What Do We Really Want “Teen Mom” To Accomplish, Anyway?

Maci from Teen Mom

So far this week I’ve read two articles on the impact “Teen Mom” and it’s parent show, “16 & Pregnant” is having on the younger generation. The New York Times reports:

A new economic study of Nielsen television ratings and birth records suggests that the show she appeared in, “16 and Pregnant,” and its spinoffs may have prevented more than 20,000 births to teenage mothers in 2010.

The paper, to be released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research, makes the case that the controversial but popular programs reduced the teenage birthrate by nearly 6 percent, contributing to a long-term decline that accelerated during the recession.

“It’s thrilling,” said Sarah S. Brown, the chief executive of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a nonprofit group in Washington. “People just don’t understand how influential media is in the lives of young people.”

I’ve written numerous articles about Teen Mom already, one even calling for the show to be canceled. But this type of headline (“See? Those trainwrecks on TV are serving a purpose after all!”) and article is overly simplistic. And it’s not even new – MTV tried to say the same thing back in 2010. But pushing aside the study itself (which, if you’re into data and numbers, I’d encourage to you to read here), can we talk about what purpose these TV shows are supposed to serve?

The creator of the show, MTV executive Lauren Dolgen wrote a great piece back in 2010 about her inspiration for the show (Jamie Lynn Spears’ teen pregnancy) and why it was important for MTV to tackle the topic: 

The U.S. has the highest rates of teen pregnancy and teen birth in the fully developed world — but at that time, no one was really talking about the harsh reality these young women were facing. I felt like we had to address it. I wanted to help give these teenagers a voice, and to share their stories without passing judgment in a way that could start a real dialogue about the issue.

She goes on to say:

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.


But do these girls need to be anything other than…themselves? Do we need them to serve as cautionary tales? Do we need them to cry for the cameras in order to “save” other teens from making the same choices?

We will never fully end teen pregnancy. We can decrease the number of young women who get pregnant before they turn 20, but there will always be teen parents in our midst. It’s simple biology and simple math: Teens will have sex. Some teens will either not use birth control, or it will be used incorrectly, or it just won’t work. No birth control is 100% effective.  So while encouraging teens to have safer sex and exercise more personal agency when it comes to their sexuality is a good thing, it’s not the job of teen parents to be living, breathing scarecrows for the non-pregnant set.

We don’t need “16 & Pregnant” or “Teen Mom” for anything other than showing the humanity of the girls and how teen parents are just that — parents who are teens.

What do you think about the reports? Could Teen Mom or 16 & Pregnant be helpful in reducing teen pregnancies?


  1. I was 18 with a 1-year-old daughter when I first watched Teen Mom. Out of curiosity I watched both first seasons with my sister whenever she had it on TV at my parents house.

    I think that if they are helping that’s good Because being a teen mom has its challenges that differ from older parents. But I mostly felt insulted to be portrayed that way.

    I didn’t actually read the study but how do they know it is the show that reduced the number of teen pregnancies? I know that my older friends mentioned being too scared to ask about birth control when they were teens yet my younger friends all went on birth control around the age 15-16. And condoms were always being handed out at school when I was in high school.

  2. I love this post. I actually can’t watch the shows because it brings back bad memories and emotions from having children at age 17 and 19. I hate to say how realistic these shows portray the heartbreaking realities that stem from being a teen parent. Although most of us aren’t crazy or hooked on pot/drugs, society is one of the biggest offenses at damaging teen parents’ self esteems. Teenagers are so young and passionately emotional; I hope more help reaches out to these families to encourage greatness from these parents.

  3. I was a teen mom, I had my daughter at 18. I’ve watched the show a few times and there are realties there, but I also think it’s pretty sad that teen moms are allowing their life to be played on national TV . I see that as a big contribution to their low self-esteem not society opinion. I don’t know that the show is responsible for the drop in the teen pregnancies, I would hope that we as parents are educating our children and they in turn are making better choices. Raising a child as a teen is a struggle, no doubt, but I had support from my family and community. As a result, it strengthen me as a person. I also contribute the support as a huge factor in my success in raising my daughter.