A study released this week from researchers at the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics revealed a shocking shift in teens' attitudes toward pregnancy. According to the study, which looked at data collected from the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth, 1 in 5 unmarried teens reported that they would be happy if they became pregnant right now. While some people will surely read this as a sign of a society who has failed to prepare our youth morally, we think that this tells us something different about teens today.
First, the romance of parenthood is in the Zeitgeist. The celebrity magazines that many teens page through show pics of young Hollywood and their hopelessly adorable children, alongside stories about Lindsay Lohan (whose family life appears to be less than picture perfect). Ask any teen who Bronx, Suri, Zahara and Kingston are and they're likely to tell you without needing their famous last names (Simpson-Wentz, Cruise, Jolie-Pitt, and Rossdale, respectively). Is it really irresponsible for teens to admire the famous with families over celebrities spiraling out of control?
We know that this generation does not take family for granted. Rather than seeing parents as the out-of-touch enemy, most of the teens that we talk to site their parents as their heroes. They look for ways to spend more - not less - time with them. And they even agree with them on traditionally parent-child battlegrounds like music. Given this, is it any surprise that the idea of starting a family seems less like an immature risk and more like a step towards mature happiness?
Second, it reminds us that most teens cannot yet evaluate risk the way (most) adults can. This doesn't mean that they are illogical or incapable of reason - quite the contrary. It is a reminder, however, that teens are passionate - wonderfully so. They are impulsive - and they have a developmental imperative to try new things, to break away from the rules and limits that they have received from society and their parents. And these very same characteristics that propel them towards growth and authentic identity development can also put them in harm's way.
But they are also impressionable, and most teens that we talk to are willing to learn and be exposed to new ideas - if they are presented to them in a way that respects them and that refrains from judging them.
Finally, today's youth are coming of age at a time when sex education has all but disappeared from many schools. And it's no surprise that teenagers who do engage in sex (which is a number that continues to decline, as it has been for almost a decade) demonstrate less knowledge about contraception than the teens who came before them - with employment of the rhythm method (proven to be only 75% effective) on the rise (17% in the years in which this study was conducted, up from 11% in the previous period). But many experts believe that sex education must include not just a discussion of body parts, but must also involve thoughtful dialogue about relationships (both healthy and abusive ones), life goals and future planning and parenting.
Interestingly, pop culture might be less of a problem than a solution to the problem of teens taking parenthood lightly. Since this study was conducted, MTV launched its breakthrough documentary style show, 16 and Pregnant. In a narrative format reminiscent of sister network VH1's classic, Behind the Music, each episode inevitably begins with the story of where it began: the relationship between future mother and father. But quickly, the story moves to the revelation of an unexpected pregnancy to both families and the father-to-be. And with the teen's decision to keep her child, the reality of pregnancy unfolds before us. While we see the future mom dream about who her child will be, we also see the struggles - big and small. She faces the fact that buying her fantasy prom dress and expecting a child do not go together. As predictably as we watch a music icon fall prey to the temptations of drugs and alcohol in Behind the Music, we see young love pushed to its limits by the overwhelming task of paying for diapers and struggling through sleepless nights. But while people inevitably judge the couple, MTV also gives the young mother a voice of her own. We see her as a person who didn't plan to sabotage her life, but who had a lapse in judgment that had unintended consequences.
And The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a hit with teens, includes two storylines about teen pregnancy. The show thoughtfully explores the complicated feelings that teens bring to this topic - and many others relevant to today's teens.
Only time will tell whether these shows can move the meter on teens' attitudes toward pregnancy. Perhaps their biggest contribution will be giving organizations who talk to teens about pregnancy a model to follow.