Does Reality TV Misrepresent Teen Parenthood?
NEAL CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Having a baby at any age changes your life completely, but maybe even more so for teenagers. In recent years, teen pregnancy rates have hovered near historic lows, but teen parents are in the movies, on magazine covers and on reality TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "16 AND PREGNANT")
JAMIE: And next fall, I want to go to college and study radiation therapy. I'm a really good student. I get straight A's, and I'm on the student council. But it's not going to stay that way because I'm pregnant.
CONAN: That's Jamie, one of the many teens profiled on MTV's reality television series "16 and Pregnant." The cable station's spinoff show, "Teen Mom," follows some of those same teens into their kids' first years.
But even while we see the tears, the arguments and the disappointment, some worry that TV still sprinkles pregnancy with glamour. If you had a baby when you were in your teens, do these programs tell the real story? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And we'll go first to NPR West and Lauren Dolgen, creator of MTV's "16 And Pregnant" and "Teen Mom." Thanks very much for being with us today.
LAUREN DOLGEN: Hi, Neal, thanks for having me.
CONAN: And why - what was the genesis of this program?
DOLGEN: About three years ago, I was reading an article about teen pregnancy, and there was a statistic in it that kind of stopped me cold. It was 750,000 girls from the age of 15 to 19 get pregnant every year. And it just - it was like getting hit in the gut. And I realized this is happening to our audience, and it's happening to them, their friends, or girls at their school.
CONAN: Was the movie "Juno" an inspiration?
DOLGEN: Well, that movie was out at the time. So it was definitely, you know, in the vernacular.
CONAN: And tell us a little bit about your technique. What - how do you do the program?
DOLGEN: Well, we have an amazing casting department that, you know, really finds girls that are very brave and open to tell their stories. And we have - we developed the show with an amazing executive producer, Morgan J. Freeman, who, you know, really helped give it the right style.
But we wanted to keep it very pure and to, you know, really have it through the point of view of the girls that are going through this. They wanted to share their stories as kind of a teaching tool for other girls to avoid, you know, getting in that situation.
We also linked up with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, and they have been amazing partners for us since the pilot.
CONAN: And as you look ahead to this series and follow these girls' stories, do you have an agenda here? Is the agenda to see if you can reduce teen pregnancy?
DOLGEN: Absolutely. I mean, this is an epidemic, but it's a preventable epidemic. And I think sexual health is - you know, always been an important issue for MTV. And, you know, we've had campaigns like It's Your Sex Life, and the show - the documentary "True Life" has really always captured, you know, real stories that are happening to our audience. And I think the best thing that could come out of this is that we can't cast this show anymore.
CONAN: You can't cast - you'd be putting yourself out of work.
CONAN: Does this come out of any personal experience?
DOLGEN: No. I mean, I think - you know, I grew up in a place where were very much open about sex and sexual health. You know, my high school had condoms that you could pick up in the office, and so it was a very free experience. But, you know, I think that there was a lot of girls that - you know, this happens to a lot of girls.
And I think what's interesting is, we don't really talk about it that much. It was shocking to see how many girls really are getting pregnant now.
CONAN: What was the reaction to the show when it first went on?
DOLGEN: Very positive, actually. We, you know, we've had really, really positive responses from the audience and from other educators and from different organizations that, you know, have really seen that this can open up the discussion.
CONAN: And I know you've read the criticism that it glamorizes - even telling the true story - that it glamorizes.
DOLGEN: Absolutely, yeah, we've heard that. You know, I think that anyone who can say it glamorizes it hasn't seen an episode of the show, because this is a very unvarnished, very honest look, and these girls' lives don't wrap up with a pretty bow at the end.
You know, I mean, they have a lot of struggles, and they are kind of thrust into adulthood, and they sacrifice everything to raise these children.
CONAN: Well, let's get some input from our callers. If you're a teen mom or a teen dad, or if you were, if you've seen the show, dos it reflect your story; 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. We'll start with Anna(ph), and Anna's on the line with us from Denver.
ANNA: Hi there.
CONAN: Hi, Anna.
ANNA: Hi. I was a mom at 16. I'm 30 now, and so my son is 13 and a half. And it's kind of interesting to watch those types of shows with him now. He actually doesn't like to watch them, mainly because it portrays parts of his life that he understands fully, but it also portrays them in a situational sense as opposed to an ongoing one.
And so he knows what I went through when I - he now has - he has two little brothers, and he's an incredible leader and a wonderful young man, and - but he - the reality shows, because it shows so much of the drama in addition to the real struggle that they go through, he doesn't want to support it because he doesn't want to - he doesn't want his friends to see it as a norm as opposed to something that should be prevented.
And so, you know, on television and, you know, making an audience face - that sees it as just sort of an everyday thing, is something that he struggles with a lot.
It's interesting that you mention the movie "Juno" because after we watched that together, he had a lot of questions about where I was at that point. And I almost put him up for adoption but chose not to after I felt him move for the first time. And he - it helped him understand a lot more of the emotional side as opposed to the situational, dramatic sides.
And so, you know, like I said, I've seen those shows. And it's kind of interesting because you'll see some situations, and I know that there's so much more behind it that you're just totally unable to portray on television, no matter what you do. You know, it's just the emotions that are behind it that are just way too hard to show you really are going through at that point.
And I think that influencing girls these days, more than television, is each other. And so when a girl gets pregnant at your school, somebody you like or admire, people tend to be a little more open to the idea of getting pregnant early. And so if it's somebody who is awesome, and they get pregnant, it just doesn't seem like - it takes away some of the stigma and starts to glamorize it at that point.
But I think that for my son, his perception of desensitizing everyone to teen pregnancy is something that bothers him a lot, because he knows what I went through.
CONAN: Yeah, now he knows what you went through. It's a different picture of it. Thanks very much for the call, Anna.
ANNA: Absolutely. I have a - I do have one other question. Like I said, I haven't seen a whole lot of the shows, but I would like to know: Do you follow the girls into - or will you be following some of the girls into - as these children grow up? Because like I said, I have a teenage son who is one of the most amazing people I know, and I'd really love to be able to see these women and their - and at 16, they become women at that point - to see how they have handled this through life and what kind of values they've instilled in their children.
CONAN: Lauren Dolgen, will you follow these kids until they're in your target audience?
DOLGEN: Well, I don't know about that long, but right now we are following the girls. We have a spinoff, "Teen Mom," and then "Teen Mom 2," which follows four different girl - both series - into the first year and then second year of motherhood. So we are really following their struggle. And it does not get easier as the babies get older.
ANNA: To prevent teen pregnancy is a fabulous idea. I think it is very, very important in this day and age, especially as sexuality gets desensitized. And it happens younger and younger and younger, and I do really appreciate your attempt at making this a talking point.
CONAN: Anna, thanks very much for the call.
ANNA: Thank you guys very much. Have a great day.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Mike(ph), and Mike's with us from Stillwater, Oklahoma.
CONAN: Mike, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
MIKE: Yes, I was just wanting to say like, I had my kid when I was 14. I was 14; my wife was 13. And what they show on TV - kids, you know, still going to school and stuff, but they don't show the kids that actually get out there and work. I work 90 hours a week for a Chinese restaurant, which I know that's illegal, but that's just what I had to do to support my child and to give her the life that I thought she deserved, even though I was a young father.
And I just don't see any of that on there. I see more of the kids that are just sort of, you know, getting by and just acting out and, you know, not really putting forth the effort to take care of the child. I mean, some of them do and then, you know, some of them just act like they're just little, selfish children.
CONAN: Lauren Dolgen, Mike says you're not telling his story.
DOLGEN: Well, I think every story that we're telling is true to their story and their experience. So if we told your story, if you were in it, you know, obviously your story would have been true to you. And I think, you know, each of these kids have to sacrifice a lot. So whether that's working, giving up school or their parents help them, I think we do cover quite a lot of diversity within those stories. But of course, your story is very unique and special to you. And you obviously went through a lot.
MIKE: Yeah, I just wanted to give my daughter what she deserved and what I thought she deserved, even though I was immature and I, you know, I did stupid things, I felt that, you know, I couldn't just go on living, you know, and then trying to - I had to better myself and try to, you know, at least make her life better than mine was.
CONAN: Mike, thanks very much.
MIKE: Thank you, sir.
CONAN: And Lauren Dolgen, as you know, there was an essay in Time magazine that had another criticism - that this was not reflective of the demographic of those who do have children out of wedlock, that you don't have enough innercity African-American women in the program.
DOLGEN: I think we tell a very nice, diverse set of stories. I think it's, you know, socially, racially, story-wise, everything - we're really trying to cover, you know, all sorts of diversity. And you know, we're really just trying to find the stories where the girls are open and brave enough to share their story and that, you know, their lives are populated by other people who are open to working with us and sharing their story, too.
CONAN: We're talking with the creator of MTV's "16 And Pregnant" and "Teen Mom" and now "Teen Mom 2," about popular depictions of pregnant teenagers. If you had a baby in high school, do these programs tell your story - 800-989-8255; email us, firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a moment, we'll be joined by Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. When a teenager, a kid, learns she's pregnant, eventually she's got to tell her parents. Keanna(ph) sat down with her mother, Rachel,(ph) to talk about her options.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "16 AND PREGNANT")
KEANNA: I was going to take care of it.
RACHEL: So you weren't going to have the baby, you were going to terminate the pregnancy - or what? So why'd you change your mind?
KEANNA: I felt like I couldn't do it, or I knew I couldn't do it. So you know, maybe adoption. But I don't know.
RACHEL: So you're saying that you're thinking about adoption?
KEANNA: Yeah, no.
RACHEL: You don't sound sure.
KEANNA: I don't know.
RACHEL: I mean, you still have time to think about adoption.
CONAN: Keanna and her mom, Rachel, on Season 3 of MTV's "16 and Pregnant." If you had that talk with your parents after getting pregnant as a teenager, call and tell us. Does this show and its successor, "Teen Mom," tell a real story - 800-989-8255; email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest is Lauren Dolgen, creator of "16 And Pregnant" and "Teen Mom" at MTV. And Sarah Brown joins us here in Studio 3A. She's the CEO for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Nice to have you with us today.
SARAH BROWN: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And have you seen these shows?
BROWN: Oh, I have indeed.
CONAN: And what do you think?
BROWN: Well, I think they really show the reality and risk of teen pregnancy. They're gritty. They're powerful. They don't gloss anything over. And we know from surveys of teens that they really, really connect with the teen viewers.
CONAN: Surveys of teens?
BROWN: Well, we've done polls and also special studies because people say, well, what effect does this have? So for example, in a recent poll we found that over 80 percent of teens who had watched the show said it really showed them the consequences, the hardships and the difficulty of getting pregnant early. And their intent to avoid it increased.
And we also profiled some kids who were discussing the program, you know, had looked at it, and about half of them said that they went home and talked to their parents about prevention and the risk of teen pregnancy. Now, how many teens talk to their parents about anything?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BROWN: Except, you know, borrowing the car, you know, money or something. I mean, the fact that it had that kind of impact I think showed us in a very sort of orderly way that these shows really make a difference in the lives of the viewers.
CONAN: And as you looked at it, was there something that connected with you? You have, obviously, a lot of experience in this field.
BROWN: Well, what I like about these shows is that, again, they're real. They're not some middle-age woman delivering a sex- ed lecture. They're not some news report on the phenomenon. They don't have graphs and tables. They're very real.
And remember, this generation of young people, teens, have grown up on reality shows. They really get this idea that this is somebody who's not an actor, they're telling the truth, they're followed over time. And I think it packs a reality to them that just cannot be re-created in a classroom.
And so we often call these shows sort of sex-ed in the 21st century. And it's in a medium that young people like. It's not a lecture with a blackboard. It's on television, online, in a media environment that teens live in.
CONAN: And Lauren Dolgen, obviously these shows are edited and condensed, but at the same time, you chose deliberately to have them at least appear unmediated. The kids tell their own story.
DOLGEN: Oh, yeah, that was really important to us, to really have it come through their voice.
CONAN: To come through their voice - and why, to connect?
DOLGEN: Yeah, I think it's - if you hear a story, an experience of a peer, I think it's going to be more impactful than if you hear, like Sarah was saying, you know, a teacher in a classroom kind of lecturing you on the issue.
You know, this is someone who's actually going through the experience, and they have to give up - they deal with all the same things that you're dealing with - friends, family, school, prom, all those elements. And, you know, add a baby to the mix, and their life is so amplified. And you know, I think that the only way to really fully understand that experience is through their own voice.
BROWN: And just to build on Loren's comment, we also have seen many of these teen moms say, in a variety of sort of reunion shows and so forth, that if they had it to do over again, they would have had a baby later. These mothers love their children; that is not the issue. And I think Anna showed how - and Mike as well - how deeply teens care about their children. But all of them say, without exception, that if they had it to do over again, they would have been a little bit older, they would have used protection.
And so that, again, is peer-to-peer communication based on a real experience that these viewers have seen over time.
CONAN: Email from Ben(ph): I'd like to know - if your guest has the authority - if these women get paid from the network for being on the show; if so, approximately how much and when? My wife watches the show regularly and says only a few appear to have financial difficulties.
DOLGEN: Yeah, we don't really disclose what our casts get paid, but the girls are compensated.
CONAN: Are compensated, and in terms of - they don't appear to have financial difficulties. Can you tell us whether that would be enough to resolve a pregnant teen's financial difficulties, or do you generally take people who are middle-class?
DOLGEN: We don't really look at that as a casting mechanism. You know, I think all of the girls will have struggles with or without the money they get from the show. You know, they have to raise a child, and they - you know, that costs a lot of money. And they have to raise themselves, too.
BROWN: Well, and the shows also - you know, in addition to the money problems that many of them face, I mean, they're full of broken hearts. And they're having school problems and sleepless nights and fractured relationships with their boyfriends and, you know, difficulty with their own families and parents, custody battles, some violence.
So you know, there's nothing about this that I think any viewer over time could conclude that this is a cakewalk.
CONAN: Let's go next to Melissa(ph), Melissa with us from Kingsland in Georgia.
MELISSA: Yes, hi.
MELISSA: I'm calling because I was 18 when I became pregnant, still in high school, and I actually find that these shows don't really show what it's like for someone who's not on TV. My mom made me grow up. She did not take care of my son when I had him. She said she wanted me to do it on my own.
And I find that these children on these shows have their parents with them. They either live with their mom and dad - some may have moved out, and moved in with the fathers of the children. But I really don't feel like they 100 percent understand what it's like to take care of a child on their own.
CONAN: In what sense?
MELISSA: Well, I mean, I believe in the beginning of "Teen Mom," in the first season, a lot of these children, you know, they live with their parents. When the baby cried, the mom would get it. They went to school. Who'd take care of the children? Their parents. I just don't feel that in these shows, that they're really portraying what it's like to actually have a child and live by themselves, and actually take care of this child with no help from their parents.
CONAN: Lauren Dolgen?
DOLGEN: Yeah, we actually have a few stories of girls who don't really have very supportive families and have to make it on their own. But then we have some really supportive parents of these girls. Some of those girls are very lucky to have that kind of, you know, help.
CONAN: Sarah Brown?
BROWN: Well, I think the point is that there are many, many stories associated with these hundreds of thousands of young teen mothers - all sorts of variations, all sorts of stories. And I think MTV has done a good job in capturing a good portion of those stories - but of course, not all of them - sort of endless variations on a theme.
Common denominator: It's very tough and in this economic environment, the need to not only complete high school but also get additional education has never been more pressing. So these messages about not just how hard it is, but how much it gets in the way of schooling, have never been more timely or more important.
CONAN: Melissa, thanks very much.
MELISSA: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Maria(ph), Maria with us - is that Palatka in Florida? Maria, are you listening?
MARIA: Pardon me?
CONAN: You're on the air, Maria.
MARIA: Oh, hi. I was calling to comment on the show. I'm a regular watcher, and I think there's some really good points to the show and some not-so-good points to the show. I really liked the couple that had the baby and put the baby up for adoption, and how they followed the continuing process of healing for this particular couple. And I would really like to see more of the teen moms that choose to put their babies up for adoption.
CONAN: You'd like to see more where adoption is the choice.
BROWN: Well, you know, adoption used to be a more common choice. I mean, I'm old enough that I remember how many young women in my high school, and in the neighborhoods, sort of disappeared for a few months to places unknown. And I realized years later, of course, that they were having the baby and placing it for adoption.
But the current number is that less than 2 percent of teen mothers place their baby for adoption. So it's a very important aspect of this whole situation, but it's still quite unusual and increasingly so.
MARIA: That's a shame, because there's a lot of families out there that aren't - you know, couples that can't have babies, and it would be really nice to see, you know, if there was more support or counseling for these young moms on the benefits of adoption for these families that are unable to have children of their own.
BROWN: I completely agree with you, and there are a number of efforts now that we fully support, to sort of raise the profile of the adoption option. It's a very important strategy.
MARIA: That's great, thank you.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Maria. And just to follow up on another subject, A.J.(ph) emails from St. Louis: Any possibility of profiling a teenage girl who insisted to choose to have an abortion instead? Lauren Dolgen?
DOLGEN: We actually did a special following one of our former "16 and Pregnant" moms who got pregnant a second time, and she did opt for an abortion. And you know, she really let us into her experience and her decision-making. You know, having a child already was very, very challenging. And I think what we really tried to get across is that there is no easy decision, whether you choose to parent, you know, you choose adoption or, you know, termination. And, you know, it's just hard - it's a hard show to follow that subject matter, just in terms of how long we follow the girls for. But we were really glad that this girl opened her experience up to us.
CONAN: I wanted to play another cut of tape in Tennessee, parents Maci and Ryan have gone through multiple rounds of custody drama over their son, Bentley.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV CLIP)
MACI BOOKOUT: You don't think that he needs a home?
RYAN EDWARDS: So you think...
BOOKOUT: ...from where he lives...
EDWARDS: And that's your house, correct?
EDWARDS: OK. Well, then that's why we're going to court.
BOOKOUT: If we go to court, Ryan, you're not going to get anything more.
EDWARDS: No, you're right, but you can't take it away.
BOOKOUT: I'm never going to take it away from you.
EDWARDS: OK. Well, I'm just saying...
BOOKOUT: If I was going to take it away from you, I wouldn't work with you on everything we do. And you know that.
EDWARDS: You know, I don't have any, any rights. So - I mean, that kind of sucks.
CONAN: And it's interesting, Lauren Dolgen, we've had Sarah Brown on to talk about this subject at other times. And one of the primary things that people, I don't think understand, going in is how much it changes their relationship with the other parent.
DOLGEN: Absolutely. I think Maci and Ryan are great example of that. You know, Maci's attitude now - they have a good relationship, but they are co-parenting. And she says, most teenagers, you know, if they break up with a boyfriend, that's it, you're done, and you move on with your life. In this case, this is my first boyfriend, and I am connected to him for the rest of my life.
BROWN: And we know that a number of young women sort of engage in magical thinking about having unprotected sex and the risk of pregnancy. They somehow think that maybe if they get pregnant, that might cement a relationship with their boyfriend. And as anybody who's had a baby knows, babies stress relationships; they don't cement them. And given the youth of the parents and all the other pressures on them, it's not surprising that the vast majority of these relationships break up.
CONAN: That is Sarah Brown. She's with us here in Studio 3A. Also with us is Lauren Dolgen, creator of MTV's programs "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom," a senior vice president of series development at MTV. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.
And here's an email from A.J.(ph): I think it's absolutely appalling that this program and "Teen Mom" are still on the air. I'm 25 years old. My sister was a teen mom. The show does not accurately depict situations. I think teenagers will go out and get pregnant just so they can be on TV. The creator of the show and MTV should both be ashamed of themselves for allowing this to go on this long.
I wonder if you hear that, Lauren Dolgen.
DOLGEN: Yeah. I mean, my response to that is that this show is a response to the epidemic, not the cause of it.
BROWN: And if I may just add - I mean, stepping back a little bit here, remember: Rates of teen pregnancy and birth are going down in the U.S. We're 35 to 40 percent lower than we were in the early 1990s. So, you know, whatever the culture is serving up - its raunchiness, its reality TV - the rates are going down. And I think that even though some people might object to portions of a show or, you know, the curriculum in their school or whatever it is, we are making progress here.
And although the U.S. still has extremely high rates, we - we're on the right trend here. And I think we should look hard for solutions, continue studying things, you know, like "16 and Pregnant," what teens think of them. But you know, we're making progress.
CONAN: Let's go next to Joyce(ph), and Joyce with us from DeKalb, Illinois.
CONAN: Hi, Joyce. Go ahead, please.
JOYCE: Yeah. I agree in - for the most part with a lot of the things that your guests have been saying. I think that it's very optimal that we have programs like this, that depict kids who get pregnant. But the question was, does it accurately portray the pregnancy I had, which would have to be no - no. I had a very nice town that I grew up in, and a middle-class family, and mother and father. I was an only child. And when I got pregnant, it was my bed that I made. I had to lie in it.
So I would like to see more of kids that don't have this little baby that they're going to have that's going to love them, and they're going to love it, and their moms and dads are going to help out and buy clothes. And it's going to be so cute. And things are pink or blue, and they're ruffly or with little puppy dogs on them.
And you know, my situation was not like that. I had to work, had to find a babysitter. A lot of the times there were a lot of pressures about whether I could buy groceries or pay the babysitter, day care. There weren't programs for single parents for day care. There were a lot of times where I had to choose between what I'd like to do with the money that I was making, and what I needed to do with the money I was making. So it was an endless stretch of just finding another job that pays 50 cents more an hour. My daughters are 30 and 29 now, so this was in the late '70s when I got pregnant. But it was extremely difficult.
CONAN: Lauren Dolgen, I know that your show does not pull punches, but I think you can hear the emotion in Joyce's voice and the feeling that - the difficulty that some women face is just sometimes not shown.
DOLGEN: Yeah. I think, I mean, you know, it sounds like you went through a pretty, you know, heavy experience. And I think that's true to all these girls. There is so much sacrifice. And, you know, the show is an hour a week and, you know, we portray as much as we possibly can within that hour. And, of course, parenting is a 24-hour-a-day job. So I definitely think, you know, there are times when, you know, we just can't fit all the material in. So you know, I think that the experiences that the girls go through, as well as yourself or anyone else in the situation, are pretty heavy. I don't think any of them are, you know, having an easy time at it.
CONAN: Sarah Brown?
BROWN: Joyce, I think you're raising an additional point, and that is that, you know, 20, 30, 40 years ago, there was more shame and stigma associated with not only a teen mom, but being a single mom. And I think part of what you're reporting is that there were no services around to in any way aid, support or abet what society said was an unacceptable life course. And I think we all understand now that people are far more accepting of a variety of life situations. There are more programs, day care, supports and so forth. So I really think that has changed. Being a teen mother today is not treated the way it was in the '50s, '60s and '70s, as a shameful event.
CONAN: Joyce, thank you very much for the call. And our thanks as well to Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, and Lauren Dolgen of MTV. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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