Teen pregnancy: For better or worse, reality TV skews real life

Two separate teen pregnancy studies have been linked to MTV's 'Teen Mom' and '16 and Pregnant' reality shows. One reports lower teen pregnancy rates due to the shows, the other reports glamorized perceptions of teen motherhood. 

In this undated image from the MTV shows blog Maci, a member of the 'Teen Mom' cast, holds her son, Bentley. Maci lives in Chattanooga, Tenn. and is co-parenting her son with her boyfriend, Kyle.

Admit it: you watch reality TV on occasion – most of us do. It’s highly entertaining! You get to dive into someone else’s world – their families, choices, careers, etc. – without ever having to leave your living room. But what are the effects of this kind of voyeurism on our society?

One new study, done by the National Bureau of Economic Research, suggests that the recent decline in the teen pregnancy rate in the US – dropping 5.7 percent in 18 months – is at least partially caused by MTV reality shows such as “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant.” It could be argued that these shows serve as warnings to all teenagers that life with a baby is not all it can sometimes be cracked up to be. It’s full of sleepless nights, big decisions, and it really shakes up the relationship between partners, especially if they’ve yet to finish high school, much less committed their lives to one another.

On the other hand, another study, published by Indiana University and Utah University, found that reality shows give teens an unrealistic, glamorized view of pregnancy and teen parenthood. The study reports that these shows make teen pregnancy seem too easy to deal with, especially since the stars of these shows are paid far more than average teen parents earn in a year. Financial hardship is one area that isn’t depicted much on these so-called “reality” shows. 

These studies seem to contradict each other, but doesn’t that mirror our society’s love/hate relationship with reality TV? Just as much as it repulses us as we watch, it draws us right back in.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I felt the reality TV pull. Shows like TLC’s “A Baby Story,” which so many people specifically told me not to watch, drew me in. It made my imagination run wild as I thought about what my birth experience would be like. 

But the thing is, it’s not realistic – not even close. An entire birth is summed up in the space of half an hour at the most. My daughter’s birth took 19 hours, and I would say that falls within a normal amount of time for a first baby. The show only features the most dramatic aspects of birth, which are a far cry from the usual hurry-up-and-wait reality of childbirth.

Now, when my first-time-mom friends ask me what to do to prepare for birth, I recommend talking with other moms (especially ones who have had positive birth experiences), reading a blog called Birth Without Fear (which includes straightforward personal stories about birth that don’t seem sensationalized), and books like Ina May Gaskin’s “Guide to Childbirth” (which I feel reinforces women’s natural confidence in their ability to give birth naturally and fearlessly).

Preparing for the reality of having a baby is definitely important, but preparing for it through reality TV is always going to lead to mixed results. Reality TV just doesn't include accurate portrayals of birth or parenting – it would take way too long to fit every important detail and nuance of these topics into a TV time slot. 

And all the makeup, lighting, and other production tricks make everything – even struggle – appear more glamorous than it actually is. 

Reality TV gives us unnatural perceptions of what our lives should be like. It sets in motion unrealistic expectations (good and bad) that don't include the variables of everyday life because of scripts and production crews. 

Reality is unpredictable – reality TV is much less so. Which will you choose to govern your life choices?

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