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Open Thread: On the 'Juno' Effect

On our show today, journalism professor Jane Brown took on the "Juno Effect" — the idea that movies about unexpected pregnancy may encourage very young women to become mothers.

Brown says the research she has done indicates that the Juno effect is quite real. "In the context of parents still not comfortable talking with their children about sex, with schools talking only about abstinence until marriage and with religion saying it's still a sin, the media have become very powerful sex educators," she argues.

Me, I learned everything I wanted to know from The Breakfast Club. Or maybe Hotel New Hampshire. The question is whether I learned everything I needed.

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"In the context of parents still not comfortable talking with their children about sex, with schools talking only about abstinence until marriage and with religion saying it's still a sin, the media have become very powerful sex educators."

We're not a little bit one-sided, are we?

I went to school (1981, Palatine High School, Palatine, IL, just so you can't say I didn't give you all the facts) in the glory days before abstinance education became so tres chic. We had condoms galore. We had spokesmodels from the abortion industry singing a happy tune about how murder of your baby and mutilation of your uterus was the glorious refrain of a "woman's right to choose." The teacher even marked me off on a test where I answered the question, "What's the most effective method of birth control?" with the answer, "Abstinance." Naturally, he was right, because only a complete idiot would say that abstaining from sex would keep you from getting pregnant.

Back in those high school days, we had such pro-sex, pro-abortion Hollywood gems like "Alfie" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," movies that taught America that sex had no consequences.

Of course, girls my age were still getting pregnant, perhaps more than girls nowadays. But this was 1981. Hollywood was telling us that sex has no consequences. So what did those girls do? For the most part, they got rid of the problem, to paraphrase Cid from "An Officer and a Gentleman."

I guess the girls I went to high school with, and their boyfriends, for that matter, were under the "Fast Times" effect.

Sent by Matthew C. Scallon | 12:40 PM | 6-26-2008

Got a problem? Blame the media instead of the parents. Yeah that makes sense.

Sent by Scott | 12:57 PM | 6-26-2008

"Brown says the research she has done indicates that the Juno effect is quite real. "In the context of parents still not comfortable talking with their children about sex, with schools talking only about abstinence until marriage and with religion saying it's still a sin, the media have become very powerful sex educators," she argues."

As far as I know, this is largely relegated to the south. Here in the northeast, we have sex education that isn't burying the head in the sand and is giving teenagers something they'll actually use - condoms and these magical things known as birth control pills. Vermont (49), New Hampshire (48), Maine (46), Massachusetts (40) all rank in the bottom 10 states...I can't imagine why. [Source: http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/2006/09/12/USTPstats.pdf]

Data (see above) would suggest that abortions and teen pregnancies have fallen by about a quarter to half from the late 1970's. Despite the attempted link between the girls in Massachusetts, the data doesn't really seem to support it...other than to make a sad comment on the state of parenting. As Public Enemy said, "Don't believe the hype."

And finally for a shot across the bow for MCS, via bumper sticker: "Abstinence makes the church grow fondlers."

Sent by Leigh Cutler | 1:10 PM | 6-26-2008

@Scott, point taken about the media, but, as a new father, I have nightmares about the world that my son will grow up in when he reaches puberty and whether or not anything I teach him about sex and responsibility will be heard over the din of promiscuity blaring at him.

I can talk to him about sex, including instruction on methods of birth control which are less effective than abstinance and using biological terms so that he doesn't feel ashamed of his body. I can instruct him on how his body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and that God wants all good things for him. I can demonstrate empathy to him so that he will care about other people, including any high school girlfriends he will have. I can show him that abstinance and even celibacy has its benefits, using examples like the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa. But, when faced with a culture which teaches him not to control his impulses but to act on them, I worry that any instruction or example I might give him will all be for naught.

And, then if his girlfriend gets pregnant, and if the whole story ends up on whatever the successor to YouTube will be, will the society which advocates promiscuity blame my wife and me for not teaching him right? Probably, but that won't be the whole story.

Sent by Matthew C. Scallon | 1:42 PM | 6-26-2008

All my high school health teacher had to do was show that dang birth video. Multiple birth videos, actually. Hell, I'm still traumatized. I don't have facts or data but I feel that the "Juno effect" (and any other similar "effect" for that matter) is completely bunk.

Since M. Scallon is going to editorialize out the rear regarding his beliefs on abortion and homosexuality in just about every third blog post he posts on, I'm gonna give it a shot. Juno annoyed me because it didn't explain why abortion wasn't an option. Seriously, even just mentioning if she lives in a state where it's hard to find someone to do one would have been better than the cynicism about having to birth it in the first place.

Sent by Sarah Lee | 1:46 PM | 6-26-2008

"... with schools talking only about abstinence until marriage..."

Um, what schools is she talking about? I live in California - there might be a line or two about abstinance, but I guarantee that the teachers wink when they say it, with everyone in the room thinking "Yeah, right..."

It is up to parents to do teir jobs to pass on the values and give guidance until kids are old enough to make their own decisions. And at last these movies show the consequences of sex - how many zillions of teen sex flicks are there out there that completely ignore the reality of any consequences at all?

It seems that Brown has a pretty low view of both teens and parents. She is seriously blaming movie makers? How sad are we as a society if that is all true...

Sent by Jo | 1:55 PM | 6-26-2008

Er...how exactly does this explain the generations of unwed teenage mothers that came before late 2007? "Someday there'll be a really cool movie about teenage pregnancy, so I'd better get knocked up now so I don't look like a bandwagon jumper!" What a massive load.

Sent by Stewart | 2:11 PM | 6-26-2008

I have to admit that I was disappointed that Brown spent the majority of the interview talking about her opinions rather than the studies she worked on.

Perhaps I'm smarting from when I went to high school in the late nineties watched (what I considered) informercials for birth control in sex ed. They had girls saying birth control cleared up their acne and condoms were so liberating. Well, I've had so many friends struggle with the side effects of birth control pills and injections and have known a couple of friends who got pregnant when they were using birth control. Why didn't they ever tell us about that? Why didn't they tell us that there is a whole segment of counseling dedicated to post abortive men and women because of the regret they feel?

I'm not saying contraceptives shouldn't be available, but can we at least explain the full range of consequences and effects to teens?

Sent by Dee | 2:26 PM | 6-26-2008

Oh, and Sarah Lee, about your comment,
"Juno annoyed me because it didn't explain why abortion wasn't an option."

She did go to get an abortion, but when the reality that the baby was an actual human hit her (she references it having fingernails throughout the movie) that's what I took as her reason for not having the abortion. That's why so many crisis pregnancy centers are trying to get the girls to have an ultrasound. When girls see it as a human most will not go through with the abortion. At least they take that into consideration before they do it rather than after the baby is killed.

Sent by Dee | 2:41 PM | 6-26-2008

Meh, I was thwarted for not paying attention. Though it seems everyone has rediculously varying degrees of familiarity with contraception. What kind of health teacher or health professional talks about condoms or birth control without talking about the consequences with the benefits? I heard it both from school and my gynecologist. Maybe it's the time in which the education or lack thereof took place?

Sent by Sarah Lee | 3:13 PM | 6-26-2008

@Sarah Lee: "Since M. Scallon is going to editorialize out the rear regarding his beliefs on abortion and homosexuality in just about every third blog post he posts on,"

You couldn't be wronger. If you didn't comprehend what I've written before, I'm not wasting my time.

So far as homosexuality goes, the only thing I've said about that subject is that powers of attorney would do a better job of equalizing homosexual relationships than redefining marriage, but that's not even relevant to this thread, leading me to wonder why you even brought it up. You must be mistaking me for someone else. I'm the guy who suggested you try fast-food cooking grease for bio-diesel. Is it all coming back to you now? I may pro-life, but that doesn't make me all bad, you know.

Maybe you didn't remember the part in "Juno" where her friend tells her that, at that particular stage of development, the baby already has fingernails. Why fingernails were such an important feature of fetal development over more vital organs may seem irrelevant to others, but the fingernails issue seemed to matter to her. Maybe it was a synecdoche. That explanation probably doesn't satisfy you, but that was hers.

In any event, blaming "Juno" for teen pregnancy doesn't make any more sense than crediting "Juno" with more mothers offering their children up for adoption, a larger part of the movie's plot than how she got pregnant amd an phenomenom that as yet has not come to pass.

@Leigh Cutler, I'm sorry that your sex education is limited to bumper stickers.

Sent by Matthew C. Scallon | 3:56 PM | 6-26-2008

Balance people.

I do believe there's a Juno effect here. As father of a 14 year old girl who loved the movie, I know it put me in a tough position. I loved the movie too and laughed a lot. Still, I was sure to have a talk with my daughter about a relative who was a teen mother at 13 whose live spiraled downhill from there, ending in suicide.

As a parent I had that talk about real life and real life consequences. At the same time parents can't be everywhere. We don't hear all the music our children listen to, can't be over their shoulder every time they get online, and can't balance those movies or television programs they see at a rate that dwarfs family time.

Those in the media have a social responsibility here too. Denying it in the name of censorship is irresponsible.

It really does take a village.

Sent by Dan | 9:14 PM | 6-26-2008

Seems like this conversation has lost the thread of what Prof. Brown was actually discussing: a correllation (NOT a causal connection) between teen media representation, media consumption, and sexual behavior. Like any good researcher, Dr. Brown couched her answers to this topic in a relatively broad context: media portrayals, sex education, parental inluence (with a subtext of cultural politics). Yes, her claims about the status of sex education in schools should raise some eyebrows, and people are right to question her. But we should offer more than anecdotal evidence and personal political positions to combat her claims (and hope that she does the same).

As for the so-called "Juno-effect," two things. First, that's not Dr. Brown's term: it came from Time Magazine. Dr. Brown's responses to the questions posed to her need to be understood in that context. She was responding to -- and trying to give context to -- an idea that came from elsewhere. Reporters and academics don't alwasy speak each other's language fluently (though I personally applaud Mike Pesca for asking what I considered very good questions about Dr. Brown's research).

Second, with regard to Dr. Brown's own research, I don't recall her making any claims toward strong/direct effects. Instead, she indicated that the media portrayals of pregnancy (in this case) exert an influence on teen attitudes and subsequent behavior. A look at the titles of some of the articles produced by her group are suggestive of thier tone: "Mass Media Are an Important Context for Adolescent Sexual Behavior" (in press from the Journal of Adolescent Health). Notice it doesn't say media consumption causes any ceratin behavior. Instead, it's about investigating one part of the larger social, cultural, and political context. If you look the project's website (http://www.unc.edu/depts/jomc/teenmedia/index.htm) you will see that her study is really an outgrowth of the Cultivation analyses conducted by George Gerbner and his students in the 60s and 70s. Gerbner was looking at violence in the media and whether it affected peoples' attitudes about violence in the "real world." Brown simply shifts the discussion to sexual display in the media and its possible affect on sexual behavior (rather than attitudes) in teens. Her methods and data gathering protocols are similar to Gerbners (a combination of content analysis and surveys). And like Gerbner's research -- or any social scientific reserach for that matter -- the studies here on teen sexuality are open to skepticism and critiques of their validity and reliability.

So, let's not get seduced by pithy phrases like "The Juno-effect" and argumetns about whether or not it's "real" -- a claim I don't think Dr. Brown actually makes, at least to that degree. Instead, let's get to know the available reserach and have a discussion about what kinds of larger cultural discussions about sex education need to take place. I think this thread has started in that direction but lost it's way somehow.

Sent by Jonathan Nichols-Pethick | 9:54 PM | 6-26-2008

Long before Juno was released, there was a lot of media attention given to the rise in the U.S.teen pregnancy rate and it's relation to abstinence only education. I believe kids need the facts in order to make better decisions. However, recent studies have also shown teenagers do not have the same reasoning skills as adults. So, there will probably always be teen pregnancy.

I've seen Juno and I don't believe the movie glamorizes teen pregnancy at all. Juno doesn't want to be pregnant and she doesn't keep the child either. I don't see how enticing that would be for a teen- upset your parents, be ridiculed at school, feel like crap, and give up your baby. Rock on!

Sent by April | 11:26 PM | 6-26-2008

Just listened to the interview and it does get really interesting when he mentioned celebrities doing abortion in the end--maybe we don't need that many ACTUAL numbers of celebrities for that, just some powerful exemplars should do.

The Juno film, besides the happy ending part, gets me thinking about the persuasive effect of filmic narratives--maybe when narrative message was not written for a very clear purpose, the audiences will "project" their own interpretation onto the ambiguous message so that everyone will be satisfied. Unfortunately, the 19 teenage girls, with the influence of their age, experience, and knowledge, and many many other factors, draw themselves to the glamorous part of the teenage pregnancy as the
"theme" of the movie while more mature audiences might think otherwise. Only with good/comprehensive sex ed and parental/teacher intervention will these girls be able to move beyond that "surface" interpretation?!

Just my 2 cents.

Sent by Amy | 12:36 PM | 6-27-2008

I am at a loss to understand young girls wanting to have babies. Of course the idiotic "abstinence" program takes some blame. At 3, my daughter knew all the "facts of life."
Glad she is not in school today because she'd tell the teacher a thing or two about reproduction -- she is 38.
Why anyone would go through pregnancy a SECOND time always amazes me. One child was just right and I encourage others to do the same.

Sent by naoma | 2:07 PM | 6-29-2008

April: couldn't agree more. The film makers are not to blame if a bunch of fools completely miss their point. They made a movie that does a wonderful job of portraying the *reality* of teen pregnancy without becoming needlessly preachy. (In fact, if it were as preachy as some seem to wish it were, it would simply turn teens off & they wouldn't pay attention to it.)

I feel very strongly that prof. Brown is unqualified to make the statements she's making. How does a professor of journalism consider herself qualified to make statements on what is effectively within the fields of psychology and sociology? Simply put, she isn't qualified, she's just another blowhard trying to use her degree in another field to lend her hobby-horse theories credence.

I'm about to make a first here, and agree with Mr. Scallon (in part). It's not the makers of "Juno" that are to blame for the teen pregnancy rate, but in fact the commercial media who have a vested interest in sabotaging the development of the ability to delay gratification. The ideal world of corporate America is one in which citizens fail to learn adult impulse control, so that no reasoning process will stand in the way of the urge to consume products and services. While this is bad enough in itself, this deliberate dumbing-down of Americans results in other problems due to the resulting poor impulse control: everything from teen pregnancy to (IMO) school shootings are at least partly a result of this deliberately inculcated inability to delay immediate gratification of desires / immediate expression of emotions.

Yet more evidence to be thrown on the growing mountain indicating that corporate deregulation has had hidden costs towering far above the perceived benefits to society.

Of course, I also feel strongly that part and parcel with this corporate scheme is the failure of public sex education, partially caused by evangelical voters who deliberately impose backwards sex education systems on their children. The town of Gloucester, Mass, is a prime example of this. The community, the media, the parents - it's hard to tell which percentage to divide the blame out by, but we can be certain they all bear some of it.

Sent by Kasreyn | 10:14 AM | 6-30-2008

With regard to the latest comment, before calling Dr. Brown a "blowhard" who is "unqualified" to comment, you might check out her bio at UNC: http://www.jomc.unc.edu/faculty/jane_brown.html

There you will find that she is not a jounalism professor, but a respected health communication scholar with a great deal of experience in the areas of which she speaks. She just happens to be housed in a school/department that also includes journalism.

Why are we so interested in casting aspersions on academics who do honest work?

Sent by Jonathan Nichols-Pethick | 11:22 AM | 6-30-2008

The one thing that I wonder why nobody has brought up is Pesca's comment about how teen pregnancy has an overall trend downward. Is this little town in Mass the only one we're going to look at to assume all these thoughts and opinions? I didn't feel that Prof Brown gave much of a response to that considering it seems to contradict the whole idea of a "Juno Effect".

Sent by Dee | 1:30 PM | 6-30-2008

@Kasreyn: "I'm about to make a first here, and agree with Mr. Scallon (in part)."

And there will be more to come. Isn't it amazing what happens when you don't pigeonhole people?

Sent by Matthew C. Scallon | 3:45 PM | 6-30-2008