(This blog entry was originally posted on the Florida Association of Planned Parenthood Affiliates website.)
“Farrah is a popular cheerleader from Council Bluffs, Iowa, but
when her friends start gossiping about her becoming a single mom, she
abandons her high school life.”
“ When her fiancé Ryan takes no interest in helping out with the
new baby, Maci has to figure out if her relationship will survive or if
she’s alone in facing the biggest challenge of her life.”
– program descriptions from MTV’s “16 and Pregnant”
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Teen pregnancy is in the news, and for good reason. As you may have
noted, major news outlets and television programs are devoting time and
attention to the teen pregnancy issue as the latest data continues to
startle the public. With the rise of new avenues of communication,
trends like “sexting”, and teen idols with paparazzi pictures of their
“baby bumps” on glossy tabloid covers, it’s no wonder that teens today
are confused about the teen pregnancy issue and what it means to them.
Parents and the general population watch with a mixture of
bewilderment, confusion and fear.
In 2006, many were startled by the revelation that the teen birth
rate had gone up for the first time in 14 years, after over a decade of
continuous decline. Then, in 2007, the teen birth rate increased for a
second year in a row! After a 34% decline from 1991 to 2005, the teen
birth rate had increased 5% between 2005 and 2007. In the state of
Florida, from 2005-2007 there was a 7% increase in the teen birth rate!
But, why is this all happening? Well, it seems obvious to many of
us that have struggled with the expansion of counterintuitive
abstinence-only sex education programs. As we now know, these programs
are ineffective and leave teens in the dark about preventing pregnancy
and sexually transmitted infections. In fact, research shows that
while teen sexual activity rates have remained the same, teens are less
likely to use contraception than they were several years ago. From
2003 to 2007, any progress in increased contraceptive use among teens
(and the resulting reductions in teen pregnancy and childbearing)
In the absence of comprehensive, medically-accurate and
age-appropriate sex education programs, teens must often rely on their
peers and pop culture for answers to the questions that they may be too
nervous to ask their parents, as well as to understand what is expected
of them culturally. Couple this with ineffective, misleading, and
sometimes downright false information from abstinence-only programs –
and you have a very confused cohort of American teenagers!
Thus, there is much controversy over shows such as “16 and
Pregnant” on the MTV network and the media coverage of high-profile
teen pregnancies, like that of Jamie-Lynn Spears or Bristol Palin. The
dilemma: Is this sort of attention bringing awareness of the harsh
realities of teen pregnancy – providing a teachable moment on an issue
that should matter to the American public? Or, does this attention
serve only to romanticize the concept of giving birth in one’s teen
years… and normalizing it in the process? The fact that the MTV program
uses quick edits, popular teenage music and cute interludes that smack
of the indie hit Juno (also about a teen facing a pregnancy),
in order to illustrate the reality of being pregnant at sixteen, only
makes it more difficult to watch – leaving viewers surely wondering if
MTV is merely playing up the next trend. The problem here is that this
trend is not a new hairstyle, pop album or must-have accessory, but a
very serious, life-altering situation.
Though arguments for and against pop culture’s embrace of teen
pregnancy have merit, I think that we all should recognize the benefit
of starting the conversation. We can be thankful that pop culture is
addressing this issue, if only because it brings it to the forefront of
the national consciousness, so that we can start addressing the problem
and seeking out effective solutions.
To find out more about what is already being done in Florida to protect the health and safety of Florida’s teens, check out the Healthy Teens Campaign.