Teen moms on TV: The perfect opportunity to talk with your kids?

How is your teenager interpreting media messages about teenage pregnancy?

Doctors, parents and teenagers have wildly different views on TV shows that follow—many say glorify—pregnant teenagers and teenage parents. And it has many parents wondering: Can parents use these shows as opportunities to talk with their children about the consequences of sex?

According to the recent government report “America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2011,” teen pregnancy rates have actually dropped for a second consecutive year (20.1 births per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 17 in 2009 from 21.7 per 1,000 in 2008). It may or may not have to do with the popular MTV series “Teen Mom,” which started airing around the same time, and David Bickham, PhD, and research scientist at Children’s Hospital Boston’s Center on Media and Child Health suggests that the show could serve as a platform for conversation between parents and teens. “The benefit of watching this kind of show with your child is that you can really shape the experience by being there and talking about what you’re all watching,” he says.

Bickham points to a study in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2003 that surveyed teens about an episode of Friends, in which characters have sex and use a condom. Teens who watched and discussed it with their parents were twice as likely to note the character’s use of a condom as teens who saw it alone. “It’s clear that what kids took away from the show was very dependent on whether they talked about it with their parents,” he says.

According to Bickham, it’s important to keep talking, because even though Teen Mom and its predecessor, 16 and Pregnant highlight the financial, developmental and emotional difficulties for its young cast, the girls often show up on covers of tabloid magazines, reinforcing the girls’ semi-celebrity status.

Joanne Cox, MD

It almost goes without saying that in real life, young parents don’t get the same kind of media attention. “We’re not seeing any glamorized lives of teen parents,” says Joanne Cox, MD, associate chief of General Pediatrics and director of Children’s Young Parents Program. “The young moms we see are very aware of how hard it is, and that the expectations of them are high. Most of the time, they’re expected to attend school, and put in a lot of work to get welfare benefits. Most young moms bring their children to daycare while trying to meet deadlines and juggle schedules.”

While Cox thinks parents can point out issues like this to their children, it’s also important to talk to them about emotional hardships that teen parents likely face. “These girls become isolated from their friends, their hobbies and regular teen activities,” she says. “It can be very lonely for some girls, and I don’t know if the show really highlights that.”

Since teens can be resistant to hearing this kind of a talk, Bickham suggests taking a more casual and compassionate approach. “Teens feel for these characters, so if parents do too, it makes for more successful communication,” he says. “Lecturing your child about these girls’ actions might make them shut down, but saying things like ‘Wow, that must be really hard for a 16 year old to deal with,’ will resonate much more.”

Think your teen isn’t listening? Think again. “A parent will always have a powerful voice,” says Bickham. “We often assume that adolescents won’t consider what their parents think or say, but they do, even if they don’t look or act like it, they really are listening.”