Many of us were born to teenage mothers or had children as teenagers. My dear father and President-elect Barack Obama were both born to teenage mothers. At this point in history, however, the general social outlook on teen pregnancy is that it is a net negative. Perhaps this is in part because teen marriage has declined significantly.
Los Angeles Times reporter Yvonne Villareal began an interesting discussion on the topic in her story analyzing how youth-oriented television shows treat pregnancy. She looks at The Secret Life of the American Teenager, an ABC Family drama which features a 15-year-old character who gets pregnant despite not even being sure she’d actually had sex. Apparently this television show that I’ve never heard of averages 3.5 million viewers:
Sexual trysts and pregnancy twists are common occurrences in youth-oriented TV land. And a recent study by Rand Corp., which tracked more than 700 12- to 17-year-olds, found that about 25% of those who viewed the most sexual content on TV were involved in a pregnancy, compared with about 12% of those who watched the least.
About one-third of girls in the United States get pregnant before the age of 20, and teen mothers are less likely to complete high school and more likely to live in poverty than other teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And almost one-third of sexually experienced teenage girls have been pregnant at least once, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
Much of the story looks at teen pregnancy storylines in shows such as Gossip Girl and Beverly Hills 90210. The reporter notes that many of the girls who are impregnated are the least likely suspects:
“Breaking the stereotype of who is at risk for getting pregnant is crucial to prove no one is protected,” said Shelli Wynants, a professor at Cal State Fullerton who teaches Adolescents and the Media. “It can happen to anyone.”
Later, the same expert says that television could do more to prevent teen pregnancy:
“There needs to be more mention of the three Cs: commitment, contraception and consequences,” she said. “What’s not fully explored is why these kids find themselves pregnant and what happens to them afterward. The whole reality.”
Like a baby’s late-night colic attacks. Dealing with postpartum depression. The financial hardship that can sometimes force mothers to apply for federal assistance. And figuring out how to obtain medical insurance. The types of things teens usually never think about.
There are never any consequences in television, it seems. But are these three Cs all we can discuss? How about abstaining from sex, getting married, and a teen girl’s relationship with her father? How about religiosity? One of the most interesting things I learned from that abstinence pledge study we looked at least week was that highly religious teens have sex much later than their peers. As in, they’re not in their teens anymore when they have their average sexual debut. That’s one way to avoid teen pregnancy — to avoid teen sex. And teenage virginity also correlates, in some studies, with a healthy relationship with the father.
The Los Angeles Times story does a great job of introducing the topic, but are there some ghosts? The story mentions that abortion is never a real option for fictional characters, and that is certainly an interesting observation. But rarely do television characters ever have a real worship life either. Why is that and what does that mean? It raises some interesting questions in the context of the teen pregnancy discussion. Or why don’t TV teen mothers ever wed the fathers of the unborn children? My grandparents were married when they had my father. Obama’s parents married. Marriage is the best way to alleviate some of the economic burdens of childrearing, to say nothing of the benefits to the child itself.