Professor researches teen pregnancy perceptions


Nicole Martins, an assistant professor in the Media School speaks about the way teen pregnancy is portrayed on TV at The Poynter Center on Wednesday. Lionel Lim and Lionel Lim

The effects of teen pregnancy in the media were the focus of a discussion Wednesday hosted by the Media School and Poynter Center with assistant professor of telecommunications Nicole Martins.

The Poynter Center is currently presenting Healthcare Ethics Seminars throughout the semester. Martin was asked to speak because of her research on social and psychological effects of mass media on children and teens.

Most recently, her research on MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” series was published in the journal Mass Communication and Society , according to the University.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy credited the show with 2009’s decrease in teen pregnancy, Martins said.

When MTV launched the spinoff series, “Teen Mom,” these girls started to reach celebrity status. Their glamorization is where most misconceptions of teen pregnancy come from, Martins said.

Martins’ research focused on five key components represented in the media and how they compared to national averages: demographics of teen mothers, mothers’ lifestyles over time, rewards and punishments, teen fathers and babies with teenage mothers.

Comparatively, the mothers represented on MTV were younger and less ethnically diverse than across the country, Martins said.

This is the exact opposite of most cases of teen pregnancy, she said. National averages show most teen moms to be non-white and 18 to 19 years old rather than 15 to 17.

Martins also noted the MTV moms rarely discussed financial stresses on air. In fact, 96 percent of the episodes do not address finances at all. This number is based off of five “16 and Pregnant” seasons and four “Teen Mom” seasons.

Of the episodes analyzed, 20 percent did not address how the pregnancy happened. The 80 percent that do address the conception do not go into detail on what contraception didn’t work, whose responsibility it was and why.

“You see the belly and that’s it,” Martins said. “There’s a key component that’s missing here.”

Another difference between MTV moms and average teen moms is family and assistance. The vast majority of teen parents represented move back in with their parents. This is not a reality for most mothers, Martins said.

Only 8 percent of teen moms in the U.S. live with partners and relatives.

MTV moms are also more likely to achieve GEDs and further their education than their everyday counterparts, Martins said.

Martins found that “16 and Pregnant” addresses the sacrifices of teen pregnancy more than “Teen Mom.” In 95 percent of “16 and Pregnant” episodes, the moms lament their loss of social life, compared to 25 percent of “Teen Mom” episodes, Martins said.

This is most likely a result of the teen mom celebrity status that came after “16 and Pregnant,” Martins said.

Martins tested how these shows influenced young viewers by surveying 185 southern Indiana high school students.

Martins did not dismiss the MTV series. She stressed the importance of parental intervention, which mediates the negative consequences of exposure to controversial media, Martins said.

“Even though these shows might be glamorizing teen pregnancy, if they encourage an active and honest conversation between parents and children about sex, that will override any message that show might have,” Martins said.

Parental mediation is one of the key factors in a teen’s decision-making. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy is now creating conversation guides for every episode of “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” to generate these conversations.

“We’re never going to win against the industry,” Martins said. “If I can get parents to be more thoughtful with how they use media with their children, that’s really the driving force.”

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