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.
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."
“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.”
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.”
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Young stars of reality TV
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.”
"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."
“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."
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Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to TODAY.com. Follow him on Twitter .