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

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And actually, they're not. The teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. has consistently declined over the past 20 years, except for a small spike from 2005 to 2007. Approximately 7% of girls 15 to 19 years old became pregnant in 2006 — a significant number but perhaps not an epidemic. Nor does the casting of the shows reflect the actual racial breakdown of teen pregnancy. While Teen Mom focuses heavily on white girls, unplanned pregnancies affect African-American and Hispanic teens at nearly three times the rate of whites.

Liz Gateley, a former executive producer of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom who is no longer with MTV, says the network specifically targeted middle-class girls through church groups and parenting organizations. "If we did inner-city people who really had difficulty with their upbringing," she says, "we thought the public will discount this as, 'Oh, that doesn't apply to me.'" According to Gateley, the model for the series was Juno, the Oscar-winning 2007 film about a white, middle-class teenage girl who gets pregnant — right down to the animated-sketchbook style of the movie's credits. (Dolgen would not directly contradict Gateley's account, but she maintains that the show casts a wide net in recruiting subjects.)

Bookout, subject of the premiere episode on June 11, 2009, was cast after her mother happened upon a Craigslist ad for the program while searching online for maternity-modeling jobs for her daughter. "When I first watched [the premiere], I had no idea it was going to be as big of a deal as it is now — such a controversial phenomenon," Bookout says.

But she has no regrets. During her two years in the limelight, she has left the father of her now 2-year-old son Bentley and fallen in love with a new man (though she says she has no wedding plans). She's appeared on dozens of magazine covers, spoken alongside Bristol Palin to groups about teen-pregnancy prevention and enrolled at Chattanooga State Community College, where she's studying English literature and creative writing. "I don't necessarily think I would change anything," Bookout says of her stint as a reality star. "I'm very proud of what my life has become and what the show has done."

Her castmate Catelynn Lowell, 19, is proud too. "I've changed girls' lives since the show started," she says. "I go to schools and talk about adoption, preaching contraceptives and abstinence." In many ways, Lowell is the outlier of the group. Unlike Bookout and the other Teen Mom parents, Lowell arranged an open adoption for her 2-year-old daughter Carly, and her relationship with her child's father remains intact; they plan to marry after graduating from college. The tabloids, for the most part, leave them alone. "I don't know why that is," Lowell says. "Probably because we don't get into trouble."

Other cast members can't say the same. Portwood is a fixture on TMZ.com and other tabloid sites; primary custody of her daughter Leah currently rests with the girl's father, and in June, Portwood was hospitalized after a reported suicide attempt. In March, Teen Mom 2 star Jenelle Evans, 19, was arrested for assault, and in February 2010, Abraham's mother Debra Danielson struck a plea deal after she allegedly choked and hit her daughter.

These skirmishes may not come as a complete surprise to regular viewers of the shows. Tension, despair and sometimes explosive conflict are among the ingredients that make the series such addictive, even shocking television. That's why Bookout, the most glamorous star in the Teen Mom firmament, is also the last person to suggest that the shows glamorize their subjects.

"In every episode, someone is trying to figure out if they can pay their rent or go to school or find a job or when they're going to be able to take their next nap, because they haven't slept in 24 hours," Bookout says. "In every episode, someone has their heart broken."

This article originally appeared in the July 18, 2011 issue of TIME.

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