Whether the MTV shows "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom" glamorize or discourage teen pregnancy may depend on who adolescent girls talk to about sex. An Indiana University study says conversations with fathers make the difference. When dad speaks, daughters are more apt to see the downside to teen pregnancy.
The study is being published in the Sexuality and Culture journal.
"The programs were developed to show young women how difficult it is to be a teen mom," said the lead author, Paul Wright, an assistant professor of telecommunications in the IU College of Arts and Sciences, in a release about the study. "They were intended to be program-length public service announcements discouraging teen pregnancy."
Wright noted criticism that the shows send mixed messages to teenage girls and said his own research found that dual message, too. "On one hand, the programs do show many of the difficulties teen mothers face. But on the other hand, they sometimes seem to send the message that getting pregnant was all for the best."
A Houston Chronicle blog describes the shows as being "like a Rorschach test: Some see teen moms losing out on friends, relationships, youth and opportunity. Others see teen moms gaining fame, money and a cute little baby to play with whenever they want."
The researchers decided to see if the family background of the viewer and communication with parents made a difference to how the show was interpreted. They focused on female students as study subjects because girls who become pregnant while teens are disproportionately likely to drop out of school. The answer the study found was "yes." Family conversations matter. Or at least that's true of talks with dad.
In families where the father talks to his daughter about sex, the young female viewers were more likely to see the negative aspects of teen pregnancy. Fathers "are especially apt to talk about the negatives of premarital sex, to speak of males' propensity for placing sexual pressure on females and to point out the consequences that result from the risky sexual behavior of others," Wright said.
Mothers talking to daughters about sex didn't impact the viewing of the shows in terms of the take-away message, how often the daughters watched or their sexual behavior.
"In this study, there was only what we call 'interaction' for fathers," Wright said. "But this doesn't mean that mother-daughter communication is irrelevant. There are other studies showing that the more moms communicate about sex, the less likey it is their daughters will either have sex or engage in risky sex."
The study included 313 unmarried female undergraduates from two southwestern universities. Three-fourths were 21 or younger. The study noted that college students are a primary audience for MTV.
The study's authors found whites were more likely to watch the two shows, possibly because the teen moms on the shows are white.
"The results are depressing if you consider the fact that a large number of children born to teen moms do not have fathers who stick around as active parents in their lives," noted the Houston Chronicle blogger.
A 2010 report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy credited "16 and Pregnant" for a drop in the national teen pregnancy rates. It noted that teens said the show helps them understand the challenges of teen pregnancy, according to a story on MTV.
The UI release said that Wright's earlier research backs up the theory that mainstream media's portrayal of sex as a recreational activity without consequences contributes to risk behavior among young people. He also studies the role of parents in their children's sexual development.
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