In a recent study conducted across three medical centers in Ontario, researchers examined how pregnant teens and young parents experience media portraying pregnant and parenting youth. As it turns out, though real life teen pregnancy rates have steadily decreased, portrayals of pregnant and/or parenting youth on TV have increased. And whether those portrayals are from sitcoms or reality shows, real teen parents see them as mostly negative.

According to the study, these depictions lead to the formulation of negative stereotypes that tend to affect real life teen parents in their day-to-day life. On one side, sitcoms tend to portray single mothers as lazy, overtly sexual, or lacking in intelligence. The fathers are predominantly portrayed as deadbeats who are often abusive and/or criminals. In either case, young parents in fictional TV are often seen as negligent sponges on society who have more or less ruined their lives.

On the other hand, reality shows like Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant tend to frame young motherhood in the context of entertainment, glamorizing teen parenthood while simultaneously focusing on the negative behavior of the stars. According to participants in the study, neither genre comes close to accurately portraying the life of the average teen parent. More importantly, they feel like they tend to be judged based on perceptions of TV stereotypes rather than individuals.

Sitcoms tend to portray single mothers in a negative light

In general, these portrayals — especially those claiming to depict “reality” — are seen by real teen mothers or expectant mothers as hurtful or embarrassing. The stigmas created contribute to isolation and social anxiety. Respondents reported feeling judged, criticized, and even attacked by people subscribing to media-fueled perceptions, and some claimed fear of judgment had substantial effects on social interactions and even mental health.

Perhaps most troubling is the implication the research has on health care, especially for expectant mothers. Health care professionals watch these reality shows too, and aren’t any more immune to the stereotypes than any other viewer. Respondents reported that while they were subject to judgement and criticism in general, they tended to experience the same, if not worse, scrutiny in health care environments.

Statistics tell us that teen mothers tend to experience higher levels of poverty and less access to decent health care than older mothers, regardless of relationship status. Teen mothers also tend to have higher rates of mental health issues, prior to, during, and post-pregnancy. Feelings of isolation or mistrust from a medical provider can lead to expectant mothers to avoid important prenatal care and prevent continuing care for both mother and child.

Moving forward, researchers conclude that the best solution would be for media companies to change the way they portray pregnant and parenting youth. However, the more practical solution, especially in the context of health care providers, is to have an open and honest conversation about the effects of negative stereotypes.

Even something as simple as adding questions about media portrayal to the routine patient history form could lead to a greater sense of ease and trust from prospective patients. Subsequently, deeper conversations are recommended in post-pregnancy follow-ups: especially when dealing with postpartum related mental health concerns.