Teen Parenting Reality TV Worsens Stigma, Researchers Say

May 1, 2019

A new study from UMass Amherst suggests that many reality shows about teen parenting do more harm than good, especially when it comes to stigma. Yet many teen parents themselves still like to watch the programs.

Reality shows like MTV's "Teen Mom" or "16 and Pregnant" often show the worst parts of being a young mom, making the experience look as unpleasant as possible.

For example, in one episode, a teen’s mother yells at her for being irresponsible. The teen yells back her frustration for losing custody. In another, the two teen parents are smoking pot. Or in another, a teenager is crying over her child’s father, and telling a friend how unhappy she is.

An MTV producer once wrote that these shows are in fact meant to be "cautionary tales," to discourage teenagers from getting pregnant. They are often sponsored by public health organizations, such as the Kaiser Family Foundation and Planned Parenthood, as well as the national campaign against teen pregnancy.  

“Young parents in our study found that these shows give unrealistic portrayals of what it's like to be a teen parent,” said Devon Greyson, a communications professor at UMass Amherst.

In a recent study, Greyson found that reality shows worsen the stigma against teen parents, and minimize the social inequities that make their lives hard, “perpetuating negative stereotypes that young mothers were lonely, irresponsible party girls, and also that young fathers were immature and absent parents.”

Greyson interviewed about 90 teenage parents in Canada over four years. They told her that the shows “make it seem like us teen moms — all we do is suffer,” Greyson said. “The exaggerated focus on how difficult it is and the mistakes that teen moms might make on the show really makes it seem like teen parenting is a tragedy.”

But for many teen mothers, it is not.

Nykesha Alson, 22, showed off photos of her two young daughters, including her oldest, who is starting school soon.

“She will be attending kindergarten in September, because now she's five,” Alston said, with obvious pride. “It went by so fast.”

Alston got pregnant at 16 and again at 21. Now she's finishing high school at the Care Center, an educational program for teen mothers in Holyoke, and she's preparing to move out of a shelter into an apartment.

Nykesha Alston with her baby at the Care Center in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

Alston was not part of the UMass study, but she illustrates one of the findings: that many teen parents are glad they got pregnant.

“My kids have shown me a different life, a better life,” she said. “I would have gave up a lot faster and a lot easier without having my kids.”

Like many teens in the study, Alston enjoys watching the reality shows — the plots are addictive, she said, and she's learned some practical things about parenting. But she agreed that by lingering on the unsavory parts of teen parenthood, these shows feed the belief that teen moms like her are irresponsible.

“People just seeing you in public, in general: ‘Oh, look at her. She has a young face, she's young. Look at her with those kids. Why does she have those kids? She doesn't need those kids.’”

Anne Teschner, who directs the Care Center, said she thinks society is generally uncomfortable with the idea of teen moms.

“Some of that discomfort makes sense. It's a much harder life. It's an economic strain,” Teschner said. “But I think there's a way in which a more realistic portrayal would be more helpful. I think it does get overly dramatic, and just greater sense of hopelessness is conveyed than is really true.”

Even aside from the stigma, Devon Greyson of UMass said there's scant evidence the reality shows actually prevent teen pregnancies, as they're meant to.

While Greyson agrees TV networks have the right to air the shows, she urges public health organizations to stop endorsing them.

Correction: Devon Greyson's last name was originally misspelled in this report and has been corrected.