Pop culture provides good segue into difficult conversations with teens

2014-01-23 15:34:42 by Holly Pupino, Media Relations Specialist, as posted on the inside.akronchildrens.org blog.

Sarah, from the MTV show Sarah, from the MTV show "16 and Pregnant," bathes her child in the sink in this still from episode 9 of the 6th season.

A new economic study of Nielsen television ratings and birth records suggests the MTV reality shows 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom may have prevented more than 20,000 births to teen moms in 2010.

The study is not peer reviewed and uses some novel research tools. In addition to the ratings, the researchers looked at Google searches for contraception information and did content analysis of Twitter posts.

But, according to 2 experts at Akron Children's, the take away is clear: Don't underestimate how influential media is in the lives of young people.

Parents should stay aware of what's happening in popular culture - trending topics on social media, TV shows, movies, song lyrics, and ads - and use it as conversation starters with their teens.

"When some teens watch shows like 16 and Pregnant, it is an immersive, 360-degree experience," said Melissa McClain, director of Akron Children's teen dating violence program, RESPECT. "They have their smartphones in hand and are Tweeting and Googling while watching. They talk about the characters as if they are real friends."

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The shows have been criticized for glamorizing teen pregnancy. The teen moms are often featured on the cover of celebrity magazines and some have been offered spots on other reality shows.

But the paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research makes the case that the programs played a role in reducing the teen birthrate by 6 percent.

Each episode of 16 and Pregnant follows a different teen through her pregnancy, delivery and the first weeks of parenthood. The theory is that the realistic depiction of disrupted lives - angry parents, unsupportive or absentee boyfriends, medical complications, lack of sleep, and financial hardship - may be as effective, or more effective, than other common interventions.

"This is not your typical scientific study. It says there is an association between the shows and the decline in teen pregnancy rather than a cause and effect," said Dr. Nneka Holder, a specialist in adolescent medicine. "However, the paper certainly is a good springboard for discussion."

Parents who know their teens like these shows might want to watch a few episodes with them and ask questions such as, "What do you like about this show?" "What do you think about that decision?" and "What other options do you think she had?"

"It's an opportunity for parents to reinforce their values and expectations," said Dr. Holder. "This can be done in a way that is conversational, rather than preachy. For example, you might say something like, `I love you and hope that you know I would not want you to enter into a sexual relationship at such a young age. I hope you will always be comfortable enough to talk to me even about topics like this that are not easy to talk about."

McClain trains high school students in media literacy, how to recognize the signs of a healthy versus abusive (or potentially abusive) relationship, and inappropriate behavior on social media.

The RESPECT program touches on topics like bullying, stress management, and self-esteem and trains the teens to become ambassadors so they can continue to educate peers within their own school buildings.

"Today's teens are practically born with a cell phone in their hand," said McClain. "They live with technology 24/7 and world of media and social media is the language they speak."

McClain agrees with Dr. Holder about how to engage teens in conversation.

Rather than banning shows or saying, "You aren't allowed to listen to that song," remember the goal is to raise thoughtful, media literate young adults.

Parents should, for example, discuss that reality shows promote conflict because it drives ratings and advertisers use sex, shock, humor and many other ploys simply to sell their product.

Think of it not as one sit-down conversation, but an ongoing series of teachable moments.

Rest assured that between the Googling, texting, tweeting, status updating, photo sharing, music listening and TV viewing, moms and dads can still be heard.

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