New Study by UMass Amherst Researcher Highlights Stigma Teen Parents Face Due to Popular ‘Teen Mom’ Reality Television Programs

Devon Greyson
Devon Greyson

AMHERST, Mass. – A new study from researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of British Columbia (Canada) shows that young parents report increased stigmatization caused by the popularity of such television programs as MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” – hit reality shows produced with an agenda of preventing teen pregnancy.

While previous research has examined the effectiveness of these programs as preventative behavioral interventions, little attention has been paid to the effects of these shows on young parents themselves, say Devon Greyson, assistant professor of communication at UMass Amherst, and UBC’s Cathy Chabot and Jean A. Shoveller. In their new report, “Young parents’ experiences and perceptions of ‘Teen Mom’ reality shows,” available online now and soon to be published in print in the Journal of Youth Studies, the authors reveal the shame and judgment caused by the portrayals of young mothers on these shows as immature, dramatic and promiscuous, and of young fathers as absentee parents.

The research team conducted in-depth interviews and ethnographic fieldwork from 2013-17 with 89 young mothers and 23 young fathers from the greater Vancouver and Prince George regions of Canada, as well as with young parent service-providers and co-parenting grandparents. Young parents were defined as those age 15-24 at the time of their interview enrollment.

Although most interview subjects did not use the word ‘stigma,’ the study reports many participants described feeling that shows like “Teen Mom” perpetuate negative views toward young parenthood—sometimes affecting others’ perceptions of and behavior toward them—by often representing young mothers as “lonely, irresponsible, and childish.”

“While it might be argued that stereotypes and stigma toward young mothers are prevalent and predate ‘Teen Mom’ programing,” the authors write, “several participants were very clear that they perceived others’ attitudes to be influenced at least in part by the messaging and popularity of ‘Teen Mom.’”

“I think people have a completely twisted view now that there are shows like ‘Teen Mom,’” said one young mother. “I think from shows like ‘Teen Mom,’ it’s now becoming like, ‘Oh my God, you’re just like one of those on ‘Teen Mom,’” said another. A third young mother stated that some of the comments she had seen about her pregnancy on her social media feeds included “You are too young, not in school, a single parent,” and “16, homeless and pregnant—have you called MTV yet?”

Young fathers were particularly vocal about the way young mothers are shown in reality media—either as “on their own and just having a really hard time” or as “party girls”—with one stating that the only time he ever saw young mothers depicted in the media was on such programs, and that “they set an extremely low standard.”

This view of potentially harmful marginalization by the media was reflected across the study’s participants. “Not only were ‘Teen Mom’ and ‘16 and Pregnant’ the first media representations of young parents to come to most participants’ minds,” the authors write, “they were the only examples most could think of.”

“Some participants, particularly those young mothers who themselves had been fans of ‘Teen Mom’-style reality shows prior to becoming pregnant, reflected on the ways the stigma perpetuated by ‘Teen Mom’ affected their own attitudes and feelings about themselves,” the authors write.

“I used to watch [Teen Mom] ‘cause it was gossipy and it was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s who gets pregnant?’ And I was just sort of like, ‘Oh, I never want to be one of them,’” said one young mother quoted in the study. “So then finding out I was pregnant, I was like, ‘Wow, I’m becoming one of them and that just sucks. Like, I failed, I’m… terrible.’ And it was because, on that show—and I realize it now—if you watch it, like, there’s a tone to it. A negative tone.”

The researchers also found that there was widespread consensus among interviewees that young fathers were depicted as absentee parents by ‘Teen Mom’ programs. “When fathers were mentioned, their irresponsibility and immaturity were most often the focus of attention,” they write.

One young mother said “the only thing I ever see on TV about young dads is that they’re not there.” Another explained how the invisibility of fathers on these shows reflected on the mothers, as well, saying “There’s nothing. Nothing. It’s, like, you were frickin’…Mother Mary or whatever, just got pregnant on your own. ‘Cause there’s nothing about young dads.’”

Some young parents also spoke of experiencing stigma not only from their age-group peers, but from other parents of more ‘traditional’ age, as well. Describing the other parents in her child’s class, one interviewee noted “They wouldn’t even chat with me, or they wouldn’t even, like, invite me to anything because I’m young.” And while she said that the other parents became more used to her as her child grew older, she had recently started to feel “a lot of stares” and hear comments from the older children at her son’s school because they, too, were aware of these shows.

Upon the completion of their research, the authors concluded “that it would be patently unethical to perpetuate stigma against the already-marginalized youth population of young parents, even if doing so were discovered to reduce overall teenage pregnancy rates. Young parents are not acceptable collateral damage in a moral crusade against teenage parenting that masquerades as evidence-based public health practice. We would strongly caution public health organizations against endorsing such partnerships between health promotion and mass media outlets to use stigmatizing education-entertainment interventions as strategies to influence behavioral health.”

The complete report, which was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, is available online here.