Friday, July 8, 2011

Teen Mom - The Good, Bad and Ugly

By Susie Kroll

Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant are weekly series on MTV. MTV camera crews follow the pregnancy and first years of life of a teenage mother. In the beginning, I watched the show due to its popularity with my target audience of teens. The crew left little to the viewer’s imagination when it came to all of the irritations, pains, relationship drama, parental drama, and birthing process. The viewers got to see how these young girls learned to or didn’t learn to cope with the seriousness of becoming a teen mom.

There were angry parents, sad parents, and even parents that were very celebratory of the impending newborn. Though I had to wonder how much of it was because the cameras where with them 24/7, how much was scripted, and how much with truly the chaos that existed in each family. MTV made no secret of how hard labor was, how each teen and sometimes the baby’s father struggled with money, and even how as new parents these teens couldn’t let go of their teen mentality and step up to the plate of responsibility.

If I were a teen watching this show, I would be thinking to myself, “I am never going to have unprotected sex.” I would also be thinking, “Labor looks like it sucks.” Finally, I would think, “I am way too into myself and what I want to even consider having a kid at 16 or so.” So, the Good, MTV does a pretty good job of portraying the hardships that a teen mom may face. There was no shortage of financial difficulty, parental judgment, and baby daddy drama. The series makes teen pregnancy look pretty unappealing.

Unfortunately, there is also no shortage of domestic violence, teen dating violence, verbal abuse, and child neglect. One teen mom in particular has been charged with multiple counts of domestic violence against her baby’s father. She was shown, on the series, punching and hitting her baby’s father. She even attempted to kick him down the stairs, all while their little girl of 2 watched. Another teen mom slapped her boyfriend on the face. Still another received verbally abusive texts and voicemails from the father of her baby, whom later in the series she decided to let move in with her and the baby. The abuse is not solely between the teen mothers and their baby’s fathers. Sadly, one teen mom endured some of the most horrible and abusive verbal violence from her own mother. This teen mom struggled to be the daughter that her mom could love by cleaning their house, trying to shop with her mom, and even reaching out to her with heart-felt dialog. She was met with some of the most awful, hurtful, and damaging verbal abuse I have ever seen aired on national TV.

So the Bad, MTV crews filmed horrible verbal and physical abuse. MTV did do follow up shows with Dr. Drew Pinsky that touched on the violence on the show and talked with the teen moms, abusers, and fathers. I think it did little to detract from the violence. All of the follow up specials were overshadowed by the filmed violence and other parts of the series. I believe it wasn’t handled as deeply as it needed to be to show viewers the seriousness and unacceptability of the incidents.

If the purpose of creating shows like Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant were to dissuade teens from becoming just that, teen moms, I believe in the beginning they would have been successful. The series showed, to the best of its ability, the ups, downs, and struggles of becoming a teen parent. MTV illustrated the loss of friends, personal time, sleep, a childhood, money, relationships, and even not graduating from high school very clearly. Regrettably, these shows had huge side effects. The public demanded to know more. We didn’t want to end with these girls saying they wish they would have waited to become parents. No, we wanted to see what happened next, who they ended up with, how the babies were doing, and if certain situations resolved themselves. This created a media frenzy. These girls became celebrities in what seemed to be overnight.

Their faces were plastered all over the supermarket tabloids (and still continue to be). After all, it is cheaper for these magazines to pay for interviews and photos of these teen moms then say the Reese Witherspoon’s and Angelina Jolie’s of the world. Suddenly, these girls are rubbing elbows with Bristol Palin and other celebrities. They are having what looks to be story-book weddings immortalized in tabloids with beautiful dresses and flowers. Many of these teen moms are living their 15 minutes of fame out right now. They have booking agents, are writing books, modeling, booking interviews and photo shoots, and even competing the spots on Dancing with the Stars.

So, the Ugly, if I was a teen and I was seeing this, unexpectedly, teen pregnancy looks pretty glamorous. If I wanted to be famous, get rich, and be on TV, now I have been given a road map to see if I can make it happen. If I was faced with single parenthood, welfare, no education, and life in a small town, the shining lights of MTV and Hollywood would be too tempting to pass up. Suddenly, the hardships don’t look so hard.

MTV’s message of safe sex and education is lost among the glittering lights of the paparazzi, booking agents, and nice paydays. Even more so, the violence, domestic, teen, and verbal are completely lost in the flurry of makeup artists, TV interviews, and Hollywood glitz. I completely disagree with making domestic and teen dating violence look like a small price to pay for fame, fortune, and forgetting about the most important thing, the babies.

Susie Kroll is a nationally known speaker and educator on the issue of Teen Dating Violence and Healthy Relationships.  She is also a regular contributor to "Ask the Experts" column in Reasons To Be Beautiful magazine.

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