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Image: Aubrey, Jenelle, Amber from "Teen Mom"
Aubrey Wolters Akerill, Jenelle Evans and Amber Portwood, who have each appeared on MTV's "16 and Pregnant," have found themselves in legal trouble. Portwood and Evans are also featured on "Teen Mom" and "Teen Mom 2," respectively.
TODAY contributor
updated 7/18/2011 7:52:39 PM ET 2011-07-18T23:52:39

As hot button issues go, teen pregnancy probably ranks low on the U.S. list — not because of a lack of importance, but rather a dearth of attention. Young women who become pregnant and give birth as teenagers often have to endure the trials of sudden parental duty on their own, with little or no help, and generally the world around them shrugs and moves on.

That is, until MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” came along, followed by spin-off series “Teen Mom” and “Teen Mom 2.” Besides serving as ratings hits for the cable network, the reality shows also have illuminated the difficulties faced by teens who were just learning to take care of themselves, then discovered a cradle full of responsibility — and for some of the young women on the shows, the intense media spotlight as well.

Are the programs still serving an educational purpose, or is there now an element of exploitation involved? And what of the added pressures of celebrity that come with starring on a reality show?

There’s chatter that the cameras pointed at the lives of the teen mothers should be turned off completely, that they have contributed to a wave of trouble experienced by some of the women on the three series.

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Aubrey Wolters Akerill, who appeared on the second season of “16 and Pregnant,” was arrested for shoplifting and drug possession last year with her baby by her side. Jenelle Evans of “Teen Mom 2” entered rehab after pleading guilty to drug paraphernalia charges, and has had several other woes, much of it documented by celebrity gossip sites and tabloid magazines.

On June 9, "Teen Mom" Amber Portwood pleaded guilty to two felony domestic battery charges against the father of her child. The abuse had been caught by MTV’s cameras and aired during season two, prompting a criminal investigation. In a January issue of Life & Style magazine, Portwood said she regretted allowing her behavior to be filmed.

Then on June 14, Portwood made news again. This time, she was hospitalized after an alleged suicide threat. On June 22, she told Star magazine she was going to rehab "for anger control issues and depression."

Story: Who's responsible when reality TV goes too far?

“We really care about (Portwood) and her well-being, and the well-being of her daughter, Leah,” said Lauren Dolgen, MTV’s senior vice president of series development and creator of the shows. “We know she’s getting the right kind of care right now and her health is very important to us.”

Creating pitfalls
It’s natural that, in the world of reality television, the issue of glamorizing any subject matter often arises. Because people such as Snooki of “Jersey Shore” become household names almost overnight, the prospect exists that the stars of MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” and both “Teen Mom” shows could experience an intrusive level of celebrity.

“Unlike a documentary, it’s a TV show that takes on a whole life of its own, so the girls become celebrities in a new way through reality TV,” said Mary McNamara, television critic for the Los Angeles Times. “That’s almost antithetical to what the show is trying to do, which is to show how hard it is to be a mom at that age.”

McNamara was quick to point out that the MTV shows “are very grim in places” and that they “show the difficulties and struggles that these young women have. They don’t oversimplify or glamorize.”

But, she said, the very nature of reality TV may create pitfalls that don’t exist in documentaries. “When these reality shows started, a lot of them had the same impulse behind them as documentary filmmaking, which is ‘Let’s go behind the scenes in these people’s lives and see what they’re like and illuminate and examine their day-to-day reality,’ ” McNamara said. “It’s a legitimate exercise.

“But then these shows take on lives of their own, because they’re ongoing. The people in them aren’t subjects, they’re stars. That’s a big difference.”

A perplexing issue
It’s impossible to say whether the shows have a direct negative influence on the lives of the young women involved. It can be argued that some might have gotten in scrapes with the law anyway, even if the cameras weren’t there. That’s part of what makes the issue so perplexing.

"If anything, I think the drama surrounding the girls' lives adds to the cautionary element of the shows," said Amy R. Kramer, director of entertainment media for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "None of these young women are in the tabloids for positive reasons. Many of them have quite chaotic lives, and having a child at a young age only complicates things."

Christine B. Whelan has mixed feelings about the programs. “On the one hand, many of my students tell me that when they watch those shows, they see them as cautionary tales," said the visiting assistant professor in the sociology department at the University of Pittsburgh. "They don’t see them as glamorous, or something they aspire to be on.

“But at the same time, in my mind, it does seem to glamorize it. The same students who say they serve as cautionary tales also tell me stories of girls they know in their large public high schools who try to get pregnant to get on those shows.”

Slideshow: Young stars of reality TV (on this page)

The first series, “16 and Pregnant,” debuted in June 2009. In December 2009 came the first spin-off, “Teen Mom,” and “Teen Mom 2” was born in January of this year. The shows have been solid performers. The July 5 season premiere of "Teen Mom," for instance, snagged a 3.3 rating in the 12 to 34 demographic and an audience of 3.65 million total viewers — a record for the “Teen Mom” franchise.

Although it is nearly impossible to verify, there is a belief in some quarters that a sudden decline in 2009 of the U.S. teen birth rate — it hit its lowest point in 70 years of record-keeping — may be at least partly due to the influence of “16 and Pregnant.”

Kramer said “without question” the shows have had a positive impact.

“More people are thinking and talking about teen pregnancy thanks to MTV,” she explained. “More people are aware of the struggles teen parents and their children face. More are probably assessing their own risk and looking into prevention methods as a result of watching these shows.

“In fact, we did a survey last year asking teens directly what they thought about ‘16 and Pregnant.’ Eighty-two percent of the teens who had seen it said they think the show helps teens better understand the challenges of teen pregnancy and parenthood. Only 15 percent said they thought it glamorized teen pregnancy.”

'The audience loves to judge'
MTV’s teen pregnancy genre has also been the subject of considerable press coverage, including the covers of the recent OK! and inTouch magazines — the latter bearing the screaming headline, “Teen Mom Ruined Our Lives.”

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"Shows that deal with people specifically as parents tend to be very divisive," said McNamara. "The audience loves to judge other parents, and usually not in a kind way, which is precisely why there are so many of these shows on TV."

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“Teen Mom” Maci Bookout of Chattanooga, Tenn., the mother of Bentley, acknowledged that her involvement on the series, now in its third season, generated a mixture of conflicting thoughts and feelings. But generally, she said, it has been a positive experience.

“As far as filming, it’s been crazy but cool,” she said. “The whole teen pregnancy problem allows me to speak to people. Just about everything has been pretty insane and weird, not like a normal life. Very different.”

Naturally, one day the shows will end, the bright lights will fade and Bookout and the other young moms will get on with parenting without being featured on a reality show — which sparks a mixed bag of emotions for her.

“Certain times I get really, really angry and I need a second to be by myself, but the cameras are there and it makes it weird,” she said. “There are days when I’m ready to just get it over with and be done with it. But I know I’m going to miss it a little bit. MTV has become sort of a family for me.”

The network may eventually decide to turn the cameras away from the lives of teen mothers altogether and toward other topics of the day to fill its reality TV schedule. Or it might find that there is enough demand for even more spin-offs. The debate to end the franchise will probably continue for as long as teen mothers exist, but for now, there is no cancellation date set for that phenomenon.

"My hope would be that audiences would lose interest, or find something better to do with their time," said TV critic McNamara. "I do think the genre should be more careful in how it uses children, but I wouldn't single out MTV as the only, or even worst, perpetrators."

Do you think the shows are still educational? Share your thoughts on the Facebook page for our TV blog The Clicker.

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to TODAY.com. Follow him on Twitter@MichaelVentre44.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Young stars of reality TV

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  1. 'Teen Mom'

    The original cast of "Teen Mom," from left, Farrah Abraham, Catelynn Lowell, Maci Bookout and Amber Portwood, found themselves featured in numerous tabloids after the docuseries debuted on MTV in December 2009. ("Teen Mom" is a spin-off of "16 and Pregnant," which all four originally appeared on.)

    The media spotlight has focused mostly on Portwood, who pled guilty to felony domestic battery in June 2011 after a season two episode showed her repeatedly hitting ex-boyfriend Gary Shirley. The judge suspended her two-year sentence, but put her on two years of probation. (Louis A Raynor / MTV) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 'Teen Mom 2'

    After MTV's original "Teen Mom" (a spin-off of hit docuseries "16 and Pregnant") became a big success, the network launched a sister show to showcase four new young mothers, from left, Kailyn Lowry, Jenelle Evans, Leah Simms and Chelsea Houska.

    Evans has made headlines for various arrests, while Simms has been featured in celebrity magazines because of her failed marriage to the father of her twin girls. (MTV) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 'The Jersey Shore'

    The cast of "Jersey Shore" -- back row, from left, Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino, Jennifer "JWoww" Farley, Ronnie Ortiz-Magro, Sammi "Sweetheart" Giancola, and front row, left to right, Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, Paul "DJ Pauly D" DelVecchio, Deena Nicole Cortese and Vinny Guadagnino -- all shot to stardom after the series debuted on MTV in December 2009.

    In 2010, the cast was included in Barbara Walter's 10 Most Fascinating People list, and has been parodied by "South Park."

    MTV announced in April 2011 that there would be two spin-off shows, one focused on Snooki and JWoww living together, and the other will follow DJ Pauly D. Both shows are reportedly set to debut in 2012. (MTV) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Kendra Wilkinson

    Kendra Wilkinson is a former girlfriend of Playboy's Hugh Hefner, though she was never a Bunny. She is most known for the E! series "The Girls Next Door," which featured her and Hefner's other two girlfriends at the time, Holly Madison and Bridget Marquardt.

    When the show ended after six seasons, Wilkinson got her own spin-off -- also on E! -- called "Kendra." The series debuted in 2009, and features her, husband and football star Hank Baskett, and their son, Hank Jr.

    In March 2011, she competed in the 12th season of "Dancing With the Stars." She was partnered with pro Louis van Amstel and was eliminated in week seven. (Andrew Eccles / Andrew Eccles/E! Entertainment) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Kardashians

    Though Kim Kardashian, right, skyrocketed to stardom after a sex tape of her and ex-boyfriend Ray J surfaced, her sisters soon started to step into the spotlight as well. On October 2007, the family's reality show, "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," premiered on E! and featured, from left, Khloe Kardashian, Kourtney Kardashian, Kendell Jenner, Kylie Jenner and Kim. Also on the show are mother Kris Jenner and husband Bruce Jenner, as well as brother Rob Kardashian and Kourtney's boyfriend Scott Disick.

    The series has resulted in three spin-offs: "Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami," "Kourtney and Kim Take New York" and "Khloe and Lamar." The last focuses on the new marriage of Khloe and LA Lakers star Lamar Odom. (James White / E! Entertainment) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Gosselin children

    Kate Gosselin and her eight children -- twins Cara and Madelyn, and sextuplets Alexis, Hannah, Aaden, Collin, Leah and Joel -- sort of got their own reality show on TLC after Kate's messy divorce from husband Jon Gosselin. The TLC program originally featured the entire family when it debuted as "Jon and Kate Plus 8," but after the couple split in 2009, TLC decided to rename the show. The program now follows Kate and the kids on their adventures as she parents as a single mom. (Clark Mccarthy-Miller / TLC) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie

    Former BFFs Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie left their rich lifestyles behind for five seasons of their reality show, "The Simple Life." The series followed the wealthy young women -- who were both 21 when the show debuted in December 2003 -- as they tried working in low-paying manual jobs that included farm work and fast food restaurants.

    Since the show, Hilton has guest starred in various TV programs, and in June 2011, the Oxygen Channel gave her a new reality show called "The World According to Paris." Richie has also done some guest-starring work on TV, but has not been in the spotlight as much since becoming a mother in 2008. (Sam Jones / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Ashlee Simpson

    Singer Ashlee Simpson, sister to Jessica Simpson, saw her music career take off after her MTV series, "The Ashlee Simpson Show," debuted in June 2004, when she was just 19. Her album dropped a month later and debuted at No. 1 in sales.

    The first season focused on her writing and recording process, while the second took a look at her life living with two of her friends. It also featured her famous "Saturday Night Live" performance, during which her vocals started playing before she began singing. The show ended after the second season.

    "Ashlee Simpson: Live and Legal," aired on MTV in October 2005 and featured her 21st birthday. (Scott Gries / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Snoop Dogg and family

    Rapper Snoop Dogg and family starred on their own E! reality show, "Snoop Dogg's Father Hood," for two seasons, starting in December 2007. The show included wife Shante, daughter Cori, younger son Cordell and elder son Corde. (Michael Buckner / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Brittny Gastineau

    Socialite Brittny Gastineau starred on the 2005 E! reality series "The Gastineau Girls," which featured her and mom Lisa Gastineau. The series followed the two on their search for love in New York, and also Brittny's introduction to modeling. She was 21 when the show first aired.

    Since the reality show, Brittny has appeared in the film "Bruno" and various episodes of E!'s reality series "Married to Rock." (Evan Agostini / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Kristin Cavallari

    Kristin Cavallari works the red carpet as she arrives at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., for the premiere of the movie "Star Trek" on April 30, 2009. Cavallari found reality TV fame when she was a high school junior and filmed her first year of the MTV series "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County." Since the series ended she has landed small film, television and music video roles and has appeared in numerous magazines. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Kelly Osbourne

    Singer Kelly Osbourne attends the 2009 Fox Winter All-Star Party at My House in Los Angeles on Jan. 13, 2009. The daughter of heavy metal superstar Ozzy Osbourne, the young actress was thrust into the spotlight when her family was featured in the MTV reality show "The Osbournes." The show chronicled the day-to-day life of the dysfunctional family. Osbourne has chartered her own musical path and has been a tabloid mainstay for her fashion choices and struggles with addiction. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Audrina Patridge

    Audrina Patridge attends the MTV Australia Awards 2009 in Sydney on March 27. Patridge quickly rose up the ranks of paparazzi fodder when she landed a spot on MTV's "Laguna Beach" spinoff, "The Hills."

    The young actress made news in February 2009 when her Hollywood home was robbed and she posted surveillance footage on her personal Web site in hopes of catching the thieves. She also scored a role in the film "Into the Blue 2: The Reef," which went straight to DVD.

    Patridge participated in the 11th season of "Dancing With the Stars" in 2010. She was partnered with pro Tony Dovolani and finished in seventh place. (Cameron Spencer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Lauren Conrad

    Lauren Conrad arrives at a benefit for the Richie-Madden Children's Foundation in Los Angeles on March 23, 2009. Conrad was another star on "Laguna Beach," and "The Hills" was built around her move to Los Angeles as she pursues a career in the fashion industry. L.C. landed an internship at Teen Vogue and eventually launched her own fashion line, Lauren Conrad Collection, that debuted at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in L.A. in March, 2008. (Dan Steinberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag

    Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt arrive at RADAR Entertainment's Pepsi 500 in Los Angeles on Aug. 27, 2008. No celebrity tabloid or website photo spread would be complete without a shot of "The Hills" couple galavanting around greater Los Angeles. Much of the drama of the MTV series had been built around the deteriorating relationship between former roommates Montag and Lauren Conrad because of Conrad's dislike for Pratt. Speidi, for those in the know, married on April 25, 2009, and made news by honeymooning in Mexico as the swine flu scare took off. Montag filed for divorce in July 2010, but called off the split.

    Montag revealed in January 2010 that she once had 10 plastic surgery procedures in one day in November 2009. (Michael Buckner / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Brody Jenner

    Brody Jenner arrives at the 17th annual MTV Movie Awards at the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City, Calif., on June 1, 2008. The son of Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner is another mainstay on "The Hills" and is best buds with Spencer Pratt. Jenner had his own short-lived reality series called "The Princes of Malibu" and has made tabloid news by dating Kristin Cavallari, Lauren Conrad and Nicole Richie, among others. (Frazer Harrison / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Whitney Port

    Whitney Port arrives at PaleyFest for "The Hills" panel discussion in Los Angeles on April 21, 2009. Port, a friend of Lauren Conrad's on "The Hills," can be credited with bringing that Laguna Beach charm east, thanks to her MTV series "The City," which followed her move to New York. Port worked at Teen Vogue, The Peoples Revolution -- a PR firm heavily involved in the fashion world -- and eventually landed a job with the Diane von Furstenberg label. (Dan Steinberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Sweet and Lo

    "The Hills" regular Lo Bosworth arrives at the launch of Mel B's Sugar Factory Couture Lollipop at Guys and Dolls Lounge in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010. (Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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