Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Is 16 and Pregnant Educational or Exploiting Young Parents for Ratings?

I just received email correspondence from an agent who works with MTV and MTV's hit series "Teen Mom."  They wanted to know if I would like to interview any of the show's cast members for a blog post.

Along with the email was a copy of the press release.  It contains a quote made by Sarah Brown, CEO of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy:

"After 15 straight years of decline, the teen birth rate in the United States is on the rise again. In other words, the need to help young people understand the challenges of too-early pregnancy and parenthood and the profound, life-long responsibility of being a parent is now more important than ever. Thank you MTV for providing a no-holds-barred look at the realities of being a teen parent.”

This is hardly something I would thank MTV for. They're benefiting from the ratings and notoriety given to them by people who feel that this show does "good." If you want to thank anyone, thank the young women who are putting their lives on television to be made an example for everyone else.

So many ethical questions come into play with this show.  I would rather interview the producers of the show about their thought processes in filming a show like this instead of interviewing the cast members themselves.

"If the cast is not being paid, how is it ethical to stand by as a lucrative network, benefiting from ratings as a result of these young people's struggles, and let them struggle?"

"If the cast being paid, how is it ethical to tell young viewers that these financial struggles are a 'real' depiction of being a teen parent?"

"How much did a camera following around these young people intensify their struggles by putting them in the public eye, on countless forums, and on the cover of tabloids in every grocery store?  Do you really feel you allowed their babies to have a good start in life?"

"Catelynn and Tyler's lack of financial resources seemed to be the driving point behind their surrender of Carly.  If they had more resources, their decision-making opportunity could have been expanded.  How much did MTV step in to offer this young couple resources, or was the fact they were interested in adoption too paramount to the story line to warrant stepping in?  In this case, why should TV ratings and having one type of story come before the needs of parents and children?"

When I think of "16 and Pregnant," I cannot help but remember the demise of Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson's marriage.  I was a very young woman when the two famous singers married and invited cameras into their home after being invited to have their own "reality" TV show on MTV called "The Newlyweds."  They divorced a few seasons later, and the stress the show put on their marriage, the invasion of their privacy, was largely blamed for why the couple could not work things out. How can MTV ethically proceed then with "16 and Pregnant" and put cameras in a 16-year-old's delivery room to capture the most vulnerable moments of a young parent's life.  Are they setting these young parents up for anything better than Nick and Jessica had?

I'd like to remind Sarah Brown, CEO of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, the woman I quoted at the beginning of this entry, of a survey just recently performed and published by her own organization. According to their December 2009 survey of 1,800 young people ranging from ages 18-29, young people seem already more than well aware that parenting is "hard." The problem identified in the study was that although most young people feel that pregnancies should be planned, they do not fully understand how to prevent the pregnancies. The survey found that a majority of interviewees did not understand oral contraceptives and a staggering 30% did not understand condoms. Many held to old-wives-tales and completely false information. The survey calls for more and better sex education. Displaying hardships as a teen parent on national television is not sex education.  There is, in fact, absolutely no information on contraception and safe sex on the show whatsoever.

The bottom line of this show is clear: ratings at all costs, network priorities disguised as 'reality,' and a conveniently placed adoption story in the name of "providing education" about teen pregnancy.  What a bad idea.


Susie said...

Great post Amanda! I have only watched this show for a few minutes a couple of times. Long enough to see exactly what you note here. More of society being fed that babies of young moms are better off being given up for adoption.


Anonymous said...

Lots of food for thought. I guess I wasn't thinking about how MTV was exploiting these girls and their children. Maybe I won't continue to watch the show.

But I do have to say - I never thought of the show as being pro-adoption. I actually feel very very sad for Catelynn and it makes me realize how very hard it is for the birth Mom. I think Catelynn's road is so much harder than the other girls. I guess that's just my take on it. This is not to say that the other girls have ideal situations but then again - there are lots of parents that don't.

maybe said...

Good question re: are the cast members getting paid - they should be, as MTV is surely getting paid by their advertisers.

I find this type of over-exposure of personal lives disturbing; it is bound to impact their family relationships thoughout their lives and could truly harm those relationships, not to mention how potential spouses, or even employers, will react in the future.

To the MTV agent who contacted you, take this opinion about adoption from a natural mother who has lived it for 27 years - IT SUCKS. No I don't feel selfless, nor do I believe I gave my baby a better life. He would have been just fine with me. Check out to discover how mothers who lost their babies to adoption really feel about it. We are old enough to not be in denial about the twisted nature of adoption in the U.S. and we will tell you that living as an invisible mother is one of the worst things any woman could ever experinece. But you have to be open minded to hear the hard stuff - if you prefer to live in the sugar-coated adoption bubble you won't like what we have to say.

Amanda Woolston said...

Good point anon, a lot of people do feel sad for Catelynn. But we also look at what the resounding response to Catelynn has been by society. In the People magazine interview with her and Carly's adoptive parents, Catelynn said that people constantly come up to her saying she is a hero. She claims that some even come up to her crying and hug her. The adoptive mom said she was glad to be on the show and called herself "a spokesperson for adoption." On messageboards all over the world Catelynn is lauded as a "hero" for doing "the right thing." Dr. Drew on the "16 and Pregnant" wrap-up show praised her as "brave." I stumbled across a website that made a logo merging the MTV logo with the Bethany Christian Services logo (Catelynn's agency) and thanked MTV for showing an adoption situation.

Why is Catelynn "brave," "a hero," and constantly praised for "doing the right thing" by so many people? Is it because she didn't have an abortion? No, not having an abortion doesn't make her unique from any of the girls because none of the other girls had an abortion either. What makes her unique is that she opted for adoption and gave Carly a "better life." While Catelynn's emotional hardships are indeed displayed on television and we have sympathy for her, society in general is consoled by the fact that at least Carly has a "better life."

(my "quotations" isn't to imply that Catelynn is the opposite of a "hero" or any of those positive labels that people have bestowed upong her. It is to demonstrate that those labels are not appropriate. "Brave" does not describe this situation. It is a shame that temporary financial hardships seperate mother and child and that there isn't more in place to keep families together).

Anonymous said...

Were finances the only reason Catelynn and Tyler chose adoption? Were there other reason? Sorry I'm not up on all of this.

Amanda Woolston said...

Anon, the reaon that Catelynn uses most frequently is the fact that she grew up in an unstable home and did not want the same for her daughter. Catelynn and Tyler are step-siblings and their home is unstable because they live with parents who make it that way (mom is always skipping out, dad is always in jail). So far, they have had no where else to turn but to live with their parents.

Had they had money and resources to maintain their own stable home, I think this would be quite a different story. Money and resources are the main factors that are behind the reasons why Catelynn says that she chose to relinquish Carly.

Anonymous said...

You know when I watch Catelynn and Tyler - I think they are the most mature couple on the show. I really wish they could've kept Carly. For some reason Catelynn has really gotten under my skin. I really really feel for her.

Now that Farrah - she needs a slap in the head! (kidding)

Amanda Woolston said...

Anon, I 100% agree with you. Catelynn and Tyler are the most responsible, mature couple on the show. I also wish they had kept Carly.

Farrah irritates me as well.