Sixteen and pregnant? Join the club!

MTV's series about teen pregnancy wraps just as an alarming CDC report is released

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published July 18, 2009 10:15AM (EDT)

This week's season finale of MTV's reality TV show "16 and Pregnant," which followed a young couple as they gave their baby up for adoption, left me with a lap full of soggy tissues. Catelynn, now 17, and her boyfriend Tyler are just the sweetest kids you can imagine: Their relationship provided one of the most positive examples I've ever seen in the media of teenage love. They stuck to their exceedingly rational but emotionally devastating adoption decision despite passionate and enduring parental resistance. They seemed like teenagers who were truly wise beyond their years, but who perhaps made some unwise decisions that led to an unplanned baby.

I still had those two on my mind when I came across a new report from the Centers for Disease Control finding that teen pregnancy is on the rise again after a significant 15-year decline. What's more, "the annual rate of AIDS diagnoses for boys aged 15 to 19 years has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, and rates of syphilis are also up," Reuters reports. In 2006, roughly 1 million young people between ages 14 and 24 reported having chlamydia, gonorrhea or syphilis.

The conclusion the CDC has come to in response to all this bad news: Adults need to wise up and get teens, like Catelynn and Tyler, better sex education. Luckily, the Obama administration is cutting funding for abstinence-only education. But parents also play a big role in this: "Among 18 and 19-year-olds, 49.8 percent of girls and just 35 percent of boys had talked with a parent about methods of birth control." That simply isn't good enough. Worse still, roughly one-third of adolescents had received zero guidance on contraception.

This report is a reminder of the supreme importance of shows like "16 and Pregnant," which talk to kids about sex without being patronizing. MTV has even teamed up with the National Center to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which is providing extensive discussion guides for each episode. As much as I was critical of the network's "Get Yourself Tested" campaign, which seemed heavy-handed and out of step with the intended audience, I have to give it to MTV for executing this one-two punch of explicitly educational messages and honest, entertaining accounts of what it's really like to have a baby when you aren't ready.

Teenagers need to somehow see the reality of having a baby when you aren't ready, otherwise their perspective is limited to girls' sudden and mysterious disappearances from high school. (Woo, no school for nine months!) Few will be able to come away from Catelynn and Tyler's devastating emotional journey thinking of an accidental pregnancy as whatever, no big deal. This is the kind of reality the "Real World" long ago abandoned and it almost makes me want to believe again that MTV could have a positive cultural influence.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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