Saturday, April 16, 2011

16 and Pregnant – A teachable moment?

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. (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? 

-Rebecca Roberts


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

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

The Joint Committee on National Health Education Standards (2007). National Health Education Standards: Achieving Excellence (2nd Edition). Atlanta, GA. American Cancer Society.  Retrieved from


  1. Great topic, Becca!

    I often use current media and pop culture for sexual education (and other health education topics as well) with my college students. Because the vast majority of the students I educate come to my sessions on a voluntary basis, drawing them in is the first step in getting them to listen. And engaging them is also essential, which using shows such as “16 & Pregnant” which they’re already watching, does.

    Also, because they are going to be watching these things regardless, I feel better knowing that they have some sort of moderator (like myself) there to dispel any misinformation, highlight the media literacy aspect, elaborate if they have questions, etc. I’ve done this with movies and TV shows alike (don’t tell anyone, but “Jersey Shore” is one of my favorites).

    While shows like this are just what you said – “docu-dramas” – and don’t always portray the exact message we would like them to (I remember cringing when one of the teens from the first season of “16 & Pregnant” said at the end of her episode that life was SO hard now, but SO worth it – yikes!), I still think the purpose behind them is responsible. But I might be naïve. I also might be slightly obsessed with Dr. Drew.

    I guess my ultimate point is, if these shows and stories and movies and other imperfect aspects of pop culture are going to be around, and if our audiences and students are going to pay attention to them, we might as well use them to our advantage as much as we could. As sexuality educators we know we have to be creative in our strategies. This is just another way to do so.

  2. I also love these shows and I’ve often thought that 16 & Pregnant could also be called “16 & Pregnant...And In An Unhealthy Relationship”. I haven’t seen the show in a while, but from the episodes that I did see, a lot of the expectant teens were in unhealthy and sometimes abusive relationships. Even without the pregnancy aspect, these shows could inspire a lot of discussion around healthy and unhealthy relationships.

    In terms of media literacy, I think that another helpful lesson would be around the financial and celebrity aspects of being on a reality show. The casts of shows like Jersey Shore and Teen Mom are not doing those shows for free. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I know that they do get paid. In the case of Teen Mom, they are literally being paid to be a teen parent. Additionally, they get to be on tv and on magazine covers. For the vast majority of teen parents, they will not get paid and will not be on magazine covers. A crucial part of media literacy is understanding the not-so-real “reality” of “reality television”.

  3. I think another lesson could be for kids/teens to sort of do their own version of Jean Kilbourne's "Killing Us Softly" films. For anyone not familiar with these films, they criticize the way women are depicted by showing examples of advertisements. She shows examples of the way women are infantalized, sexualized, and commodified.

    I can just imagine the commercials that are shown during shows such as "16 and Pregnant" or "Jersey Shore." They can be more damaging than watching the shows themselves. An assignment could be to watch an episode with commercials and describe the way men and women are depicted in commercials: gender roles, body images, violence, intelligence levels. etc. It would be ideal if the facilitator could show examples of commercials on video during class in order to assist the students in critiquing it.

  4. Great discussion Rebecca. Seeing that I don't own a television (which is by design) I cannot speak critically about the show 16 and Pregnant specifically, however, from what I have heard the content can be disheartening. What I can speak to is “watching” versus “doing.” I know what the literature says about media consumption and the affects on young people, but I have to wonder some days “are adults more susceptible to media influences than young people?” We (adults, parents, educators, politicians, etc.) make such a big deal about what young folks are being exposed to in an effort to find the one factor that is causing their (supposed) damnation. How often do adults review the media influences they were exposed to growing up to locate what may have “screwed” them up?

    I think back to when I was a freshman in high school in the mid-90s. There was a song called “Put it in ya mouth” by Akinyele. One of the verses went like this [EXPLICIT LANGUAGE FOLLOWING]:

    Now you can lick it, you can sip it, you can taste it/
    I'm talkin every drip-drop, don't you waste it/
    baby, slurp it up/its enough to fill your cup/
    its finger lickin good/
    and I’m wishin that you would/
    go down/kinda slow or even fast/
    I'm always sprung/ once I feel your tongue
    In the crack of my ass/ just eatin me-nigga
    goin out like that/boy you pack such a tasty treat/
    and you can eat me out/
    but put it your my mouth/
    put it in your mouth/

    When I think back to this song (the entire song is 100 times more raunchy than this verse, this just happened to be my favorite back in the day) I have said to myself “WOW! This was playing 14-15 years ago and WE are complaining about what THESE young folks are listening to?” When I’ve asked myself and other people about this song or songs that were similar, I ask if they were motivated to act out what the song was discussing. After giving it some thought most people, including myself, have said, “You know what Shay? I cannot think of any song that I listened to and said I’m going to go have sex after listening to it. I had sex because my body, or mind, began to feel...”

    My point is this, as an educator I have to be aware that young people are inundated with many more messages than my generation, but that is not to say the messages are different. To say that young people who absorb media will automatically be influenced in a negative way isn’t fair (in my opinion). I was never inclined to perform oral sex after listening to “Put it in ya mouth.” Never. And not every young person who watches 16 and Pregnant will think single parenthood is glamourous or easy. Not every young person is doomed for a life of unhealthy sexuality and relationships.


  5. Great post Rebecca!

    I really Like Shay's point of not going out and doing something because a TV show or song describes how. My reaction to that is, how to these messages come into play when thinking about the consequences of actions? I totally get that a TV show wouldn't necessarily like spark you to do something like have a baby, but what about in the heat of the moment when protection isn't available and a girl is going, “Well, even if I do get pregnant, it's not soooooo bad. I mean the girls on TV do okay”.

    Also, I'm not that familiar with the show, so I don't know all the story lines, but I'm guessing none of the moms have (or at least don't mention) STIs/HIV. Totally a teachable moment there.

    ~Rachel Girard

  6. Rebecca,

    I am so happy to hear that im not the only one who likes these shows! I actually think these shows have a lot of great teachable moments. they always ask the girls on the shows about what went wrong, like why they got pregnant. and then they talk about how they did not use BC and condoms, or if they did use BC what they did wrong (like did not realize that you have to be on the pill for a certain amount of time for it to start working, or skipped days, etc.). In the end of each episode of 16&pregnant they also ask the girls how their lives have changed since they had a baby, what they would have done differently, and do they regret it?

    Teen Mom is even better because they follow the same group of girls through the first year or so of motherhood. After watching a season of teen mom i dont think anyone can say that they are doing okay. they all have terrible, unhealthy, and painful relationships with their childs father. many of them also have bad relationships with their own parents and have financial troubles.

    In my practicum i teach teens about unhealthy relationships, and i think teen mom has a lot of examples of unhealthy and abusive relationships. in terms of media literacy, i have been using music to do this. I use 'Grenade' by Bruno Mars as an example of an unhealthy relationship, and in order to balance it i use a positive example of a relationship with 'just the way you are' also by bruno mars. its interesting that finding example sof unhealthy or abuisve relationships is easy, but finding examples of positive relationship messages in songs is very difficult! but i think it is important to have both in the same lesson in order to balance it, and not give students a reason to say that older people always think their music is bad.

  7. 16 & Pregnant is part of the fuel to my fire as a doula and an educator. Pop culture in general is a big deal to me and my professional persona. The only reason I stay up with shows like this is to continually remind myself of the value of media literacy and the importance of knowing what audiences I may teach are watching and reading in order to break down the messages and use media as a tool. I really love Shannon's idea and we need updated versions of those kinds of things!

    Although I haven't come up with my own activities just yet, one of my favorite topics to do media literacy lessons is pornography. Sometimes you can't do this with teen audiences (although you can almost get there with some of the programs out there), it is a great tool with undergraduates, especially I've found with female audiences. There's lots of different ways to address body image, sexual violence, etc.

    Thanks for bringing this up Rebecca, I'm always excited to talk about media literacy!