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The perverse incentives behind MTV’s Teen Mom

So, as I mentioned yesterday, I am turning anti-Teen Mom/16 & Pregnant, the wildly successful (and highly entertaining) MTV franchises that follow the exploits of teen moms, and soon-to-be-teen-moms, respectively. While I love watching these shows, I’m starting to feel sort of dirty supporting them with my viewership, because I think they’re creating perverse and dangerous incentives for teenagers. Although the stated message of both shows is that getting pregnant while you’re in high school is extremely difficult and thrusts you into adulthood before you’re ready, effectively ending your blissful childhood, the practical message of the show is: get pregnant and get paid (and famous)!

The reality behind Teen Mom and 16 & Pregnant is that, while MTV claims the shows are meant to educate us on the dangers of teen pregnancy, the real reason they’re aired is because they are lucrative for the network.  MTV has an incentive to groom its pregnant teens so that they stay on for several seasons, and we can follow their exploits from month to month, year to year, thus increasing viewer loyalty to the franchise. I know that I feel invested in the original crop of teen moms – Farrah, Amber, Maci and Catelyn. I mean, aren’t we all curious about whether Amber’s going to get a giant tat of her next baby (yup, she’s pregnant again) to match the tasteful one she recently got of her firstborn Leah?  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1339894/Teen-Moms-Amber-Portwood-tattoos-daughter-Leahs-lifesize-face-waist.html And don’t we all want to stay abreast (ahem) of Farrah’s latest aesthetic enhancements? (Gross).

Since MTV wants these girls to stay on for more seasons of Teen Mom (supplemented by frequent “specials,” which are always earnest fireside chats with Dr. Drew about the ups and downs of parenting), it’s going to pay them and probably provide other perks to ensure their continued presence on the network. Although the reported salary for each Teen Mom participant is somewhere around $60,000 to $65,000 per season (no small sum, especially considering that these people are in high school – that’s quite an allowance), Amber recently revealed that her yearly salary is $280,000! http://amygrindhouse.com/amber-portwood-salary.html That’s right, $280,000. That is almost TWICE what I make per year and I am a Harvard-educated lawyer. Think about that for a sec….  Um, isn’t there something kind of effed up about that? This show is telling teenagers (who are notoriously stupid, by the way) that a good way to strike it rich is to get knocked up.  So if you’re a 16-year-old named, say, Kaeylee who doesn’t have a whole lot else going for you, maybe being preggers doesn’t suddenly seem like such a bad option.

On top of the cold, hard cash that MTV is handing over to these babies havin’ babies is the instant fame and media attention that comes with the gig. The teen moms are often featured on the cover of gossip mags, and not just the trashy ones (hi, Life & Style). I mean, even the revered People has gotten in on the Teen Mom bonanza: http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20449708,00.html This is serious, guys.

In response to scrutiny over these very concerns, MTV claims that the show “increases awareness” about the issue of teen pregnancy and is thus doing a public service. I’m willing to concede that the show probably does raise awareness and likely has prevented some pregnancies. But it has probably spawned other pregnancies, and has definitely created some really weird incentives for teens who just might be stupid enough to get pregnant on purpose.

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