Teen Moms Are Taking over Reality TV. Is That a Good Thing?

Teen moms are reality TV's new stars. Is this a good thing?

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Photograph by Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

"This is the happiest day of my life!" So says Maci Bookout, according to a recent cover of OK! magazine, where the 19-year-old Teen Mom star and rumored bride-to-be flashes a beauty-queen smile. Sharing cover space with Bookout — and sporting a bikini, plus a baby on each hip — is Leah Messer, 19, whose dream wedding was featured in last spring's season finale of Teen Mom 2. (One month later, she filed for divorce.) Elsewhere in the celebrity mediasphere, one might find Teen Mom's Farrah Abraham, 20, staging a photo op for paparazzi on a Florida beach, or Abraham's castmate Amber Portwood, 21, posing for photographers outside her latest court hearing; she was recently sentenced to probation after pleading guilty to felony domestic battery against the father of her child.

A spin-off of MTV's popular reality series 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom recently entered its third season. With more than 3 million viewers each week, it's the network's top-rated show after Jersey Shore, and its subjects provide endless fodder for the tabloids. But MTV's teen-pregnancy franchise is a more discomfiting venture than most artifacts of the reality-TV age. Not quite famous for being famous, as the denizens of The Hills and Jersey Shore are, these young mothers became famous for making unplanned detours into parenthood — and inviting cameras along for the ride. Though MTV recruited them to be the subjects of cautionary tales, the network has turned them into success stories: television stars and cover girls, gainfully employed just for being themselves. (Last December, Portwood disclosed that she earned $140,000 from a six-month contract with MTV.) The contradictions of Teen Mom — brand fame might be encapsulated in a 2010 cover of Us Weekly: Bookout and Abraham stand back to back, cradling their adorable toddlers and grinning sunnily above the somber headline INSIDE THEIR STRUGGLE.

It's an uneasy mix of messages from programs intended to document and deter teen pregnancy, not exalt it. Lauren Dolgen, senior vice president of series development at MTV and the creator of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, got the idea for the shows after reading that each year, 750,000 15-to-19-year-olds become pregnant in the U.S. "This is an epidemic that is happening to our audience, and it's a preventable epidemic," Dolgen says. "We thought it was so important to shed light on this issue and to show girls how hard teen parenting is."

Each episode of 16 and Pregnant tracks one teen from the latter stages of pregnancy to the first months of her child's life. The series does not sugarcoat the challenges its subjects face: the slights and scorn of peers, friction with disappointed (grand)parents, colic, drudgery, arguments, sleep deprivation and — with dismayingly few exceptions — the burden of a feckless, absent or outright abusive boyfriend. Both 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom (which features alums of 16 and Pregnant such as Bookout, Abraham and Portwood) beckon viewers to the website ItsYourSexLife.com which offers sex-ed resources and promotes dialogue between teens and their parents about sex.

The approach works. An October 2010 focus-group study commissioned by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 4 in 10 teenagers who watch an episode of 16 and Pregnant talk about the show with a parent afterward and that more than 90% of them think teen pregnancy is harder than they imagined before watching the series. "Any show that provides an opportunity to get more direction from a responsible adult, whether it's a parent or an educator — that's a terrific opportunity," says Leslie Kantor, national director of education initiatives for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

But Kantor adds that despite their quest for gritty realism, the shows may create a distorted view of teen sexual activity. "Showing the consequences of risky behavior can be helpful to some young people," she says. "What you don't want is to send the message that everybody is having unprotected sex. These shows create a perception that tremendous numbers of teens are becoming pregnant or becoming parents."

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