I have to admit it: one of my guilty pleasures these days has been watching the TV dramas 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom 1 & 2 (soon to be 3). At first I rationalized my interest in these shows as research for my job, though this quickly faded as I became consumed with the characters and plot. I speak about them like they’re any other drama on TV but the difference is that these shows depict true life examples of teen parents, their challenges and triumphs, and general life paths throughout a season on MTV.
Though these shows are highly dramatic and entertaining for the audience, I can’t help but think about the potential impact they have on teen attitudes and beliefs regarding parenting. What I’ve heard from my own students is that “the teens on TV don’t seem to have trouble being parents.” It’s no wonder why young people in our society are so confused by the messages about teen parenting. The media often sensationalizes it while we educators are caught trying to impart the consequences and realities that most teens face (albeit not always those teens featured on MTV). While these shows are presented as docu-dramas, what “reality” are they really depicting? Are they creating misperceptions about teen parenting, or are they offering some great teachable moments on which we can capitalize? How can we use these popular teen TV shows for great sex education?
Enter media literacy.
According to the Media Literacy Project, media literacy is “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media. Media literate youth and adults are better able to understand the complex messages we receive from television, radio, Internet, newspapers, magazines, books, billboards, video games, music, and all other forms of media” All of this analysis helps to differentiate between fantasy and reality and give youth the tools necessary to make informed decisions. Great sex ed opportunity..? I think so!
Media has been shown to be a significant influence on young people’s lives and media literacy skills are an important aspect in education (Gilbert & Sawyer, 2000). Even the National Health Education Standards address media literacy as essential to education.
One example of using a media literacy activity to promote critical thinking skills is to choose a program for students to analyze (i.e. 16 and Pregnant). Divide the class into small groups and give each group a character from the show to watch and evaluate. Ask them to observe how parenting affects the teen’s life, considering the challenges and types of support that teen may receive (familial, financial, etc.). After watching the program, discuss what the students noticed about teen parenting. Also, ask them to make up their own ending to the teen’s life (since their life lasts much longer than a season on MTV).
While this is only one example of a media literacy activity, there are many others available. MTV even puts out discussion guides for the shows available on www. stayteen.org (great website for sex ed info) which also provides stats, resources and questions to consider. Discussion around these shows is critical for students to examine the realities about teen parenting and also be able to better personalize how parenting would affect their own lives.
I am always interested to hear how other educators are using the media to connect with youth and capitalize on those teachable moments in order to provide great sex ed. What methods and activities have you found effective in getting students to analyze media messages?
Brown, J. (Ed). (2008). Managing the media monster: The influence of media (from television to text messages) on teen sexual behavior and attitudes. Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Retrieved from www.thenationalcampaign.org/resources/monster/Media_Monster.pdf
Gilbert, G.G. & Sawyer, R.G. (2000). Health education: Creating strategies for school & community health (2nd ed). Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.
Palante Technology & Bazant, M. (n.d.). Media Literacy Project. Albuquerque, NM. Retrieved from http://medialiteracyproject.org/learn/media-literacy
The Joint Committee on National Health Education Standards (2007). National Health Education Standards: Achieving Excellence (2nd Edition). Atlanta, GA. American Cancer Society. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/SHER/standards/index.htm