Expanding those teen pregnancy discussions

seclifeMany 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.

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  • http://www.muchmorethanwords.com gfe

    What strikes me about much of television isn’t that teens engage in reckless behavior, or that there is rampant promiscuity on many TV shows. After all, sexual conduct has been an important part of fiction since well before Shakespeare.

    What strikes me about much of television is that people who adhere to the traditional Judeo-Christian perspective on sexual behavior (or even hold it as an ideal) seemingly don’t exist. It is assumed in most shows that the difference between being married and single is that if you’re married you have sex with only one person (and maybe not even limited to that), and that that belief sex without commitment is universal. And in how many shows are all the interesting people unmarried?

    Through my children, I know plenty of teens and single young adults — they include practicing Catholics, Mormons and evangelical Protestants — who seek to or actually do live a life of chastity. In today’s culture they aren’t a majority, but they are a significant minority. Yet such characters seldom exist on TV or in film, even though such people could provide some interesting story lines, or at least provide a bigger variety of characters.

    I’m not among those who call for censorship, or suggest that all characters on TV live exemplary lives. But it would be nice to see some balance now and then.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    Is religion the ghost in the article — unacknowledged?

  • Chris Bolinger

    I love the ABC Family tagline: “a new kind of family”. The reality is that a new kind of family for that network would be one that goes to church regularly.

  • http://faithphotos.aminus3.com Chris

    Now I am not a statistician, but these statistics seemed a bit odd to me:

    About one-third of girls in the United States get pregnant before the age of 20…..
    And almost one-third of sexually experienced teenage girls have been pregnant at least once….

    If the statistics are consistent with each other, wouldn’t that mean that 100% of teenagers are “sexually experienced”?

    No wonder TV shows have teenage characters having sex – apparently in reality all teenagers are having sex.

  • Jerry

    I can’t remember offhand if I mentioned this earlier here, but one thing that should be mentioned is that religion does play a role in age of sexual experience. One story said this:

    When they looked at religion though it was a completely different story.

    Teens who were said to be religious waited until the age of 21 on average to have intercourse, compared to 17 for those who were not religious.

    http://smartabouthealth.net/curiosity/2009/01/05/religion-may-be-key-to-keeping-teens-from-having-sex/

  • Jill C.

    I was a teenaged mother. I got married at 18 and my husband and I had our first child when I was 19. Just another teen pregnancy statistic, I suppose!

  • Rose

    I’m sorry but how can anyone take these surveys that only contact 1000 teens into consideration as “evidence” that religion affects when children first have sex. I went to a Catholic High School with many religious friends, all of whom had sex in high school. I waited until I was 21 (I am also the only atheist out of all my friends). There are over 1000 kids just at my school alone (and this is supposedly a religious school remember) yet most were having sex. Until a proper survey is done, with more than 1000 teens, perhaps we can call this evidence, until then, perhaps teaching abstinence only education, whether to religious or non-religious teens, should be reconsidered (I mean look at Sarah Palin, a supposed fundamentalist Christian and her daughter who got pregnant at 17). But of course fundamentalists want us to forget about all of the pregnant religious kids and just focus on those immoral atheists and agnostics who teach their kids to… gasp… use condoms and practice safe sex.
    Just the opinion from a university student who sees far too many young people engaging in sexual relationships very young without ever being educated about safe sex.


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