Amber Portwood: MTV 'Teen Mom' a role model for better or worse?

Amber Portwood, the MTV 'Teen Mom' star headed to a five-year jail prison term for drug charges, apparently has some real influence with teens. A poll shows she has convinced 77 percent of teens that pregnancy and parenting are really, really hard. But what about the 23 percent who said she made it look easy?

John P. Cleary/The Herald-Bulletin/AP
Amber Portwood, the MTV "Teen Mom" reality star, sits quietly in the Madison County jail in Anderson Ind. on June 6, 2012 as a crew from Good Morning America adjusts their recording equipment as they prepared to tape an interview. A recent poll shows that 77 percent of teens said that the show made them realize that parenting is really, really hard.

The final season of the hit reality show "Teen Mom" begins tomorrow. This means viewers who appreciate a good train wreck can watch the full unraveling of star Amber Portwood, who was ordered last week to serve a five-year prison sentence on drug charges.

Ms. Portwood, who would have been able to avoid incarceration if she had completed a rehab program, told Good Morning America that she had been so depressed that she tried to commit suicide, and that she decided going prison would be the best thing she could do for herself. This despite the fact that she (of course, since this is why she’s “famous” in the first place) has a little daughter.

Now we get to watch the whole downward spiral leading to this mental state. Gee, sounds like great entertainment.

I know we’ve written about this before, but does anyone else out there find this a bit uncomfortable? Or just downright sad and depressing?

Last week we wrote about how the horrified glee directed toward the Bad Mommies of reality television seems like a social release valve for the stressed-out, anxious style of American parenting that's so common today. 

But today I was wondering whether there could be any other purpose served by these tragic examples, perhaps something more positive.

As it turns out, there may be. According to a survey that came out last month by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, the MTV shows in which Portwood has appeared – “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom”  –  have, for the most part, convinced other teens that pregnancy and parenting are really, really hard. 

Within the survey, 77 percent of teens said that the shows helped them “better understand the challenges of pregnancy and parenting.”  That’s probably a good thing, a reinforcement to the overall decline in US teen pregnancy rates.  (Earlier this year  the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a record low birth rate for girls aged 15 to 19, at 34.3 per 1,000. These 2010 figures reflected a 9 percent drop from 2009 among teens 18-19 years old, and a 12 percent drop for 15 to 17-year-olds.)

Of course, the survey’s remaining 23 percent say Portwood et al make “pregnancy and parenthood look easy.” And adults are more skeptical about the shows’ cautionary messaging; 48 percent of adults thought the shows made pregnancy and parenthood look easy.  (In fairness, though, there was not an option to say that the show didn’t impact one’s perspective at all.)

For the majority of teens, then, maybe Portwood is encouraging good choices.

OK, a bit of a stretch, but we’ll still take it.

Even with the "Teen Mom" influence, though, (whatever it may be) parents are not off the hook.  In that same National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy survey, 38 percent of teens said that parents have the most influence on their decisions about sex, compared to 9 percent who said “the media” had the most influence.  The second highest influential group was “friends,” at 22 percent.

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