Friday, December 3, 2010

The Talk Can be as Easy as 1, 2, Glee

Tuesdays have become my favorite day of the week. I have a new found appreciation for track suits. I have never missed my days in high school show-choir more than I do now. …Yes I am a GLEEK. For those of you who haven’t experienced this hypnotizing TV series on Fox, my friends you are missing out. Glee is a blend of day-time soap opera drama, teenage hormones, high school survival skills and life lessons…all in perfect harmony, literally. Embedded in the script of perfect pitches and Brittany Spears dance moves are stories about love, sex and relationships among young people.

The storyline of Glee isn’t as frivolous as it appears to be, the plot has covered issues such as bullying based on sexual orientation, consequences of sexual behaviors including teen pregnancy, delinquent behaviors in high school, eating disorders and body image, and the various stereotypes that exist while in high school.

Last night, one of the characters of the show, Rachel, deliberately cheated on her boyfriend, Finn, in an effort to seek revenge on him because she thought he cheated on her. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, I feel that this type of “revenge” is far too common among teens today. Due to a lack of communication and the lack of healthy decision-making skills, teens are left to engage in risky sexual behaviors.

To be honest, it isn’t just teens that participate in this type of “revenge.” As adults, it is important for us to sit down with young people and discuss healthy behaviors in a relationship, including communication skills that will enable them to talk about their feelings with a partner. Adults are ultimately the lead characters of a young person’s life; it is our responsibility to role-model what healthy behaviors look like and to engage in open conversations about love, sex and relationships. Initiating discussions after watching a show like Glee could be one way of talking to your young person about how they feel about the behaviors that they have seen on TV and how they would have acted if put in the same position.

Initiating conversations after watching a TV show or movie together can take the stress off of you to know how to start “the talk.” Instead, you could say “so what would do you think about what Rachel did in Glee?” and use the storyline of the show as talking points.

Think of it this way, when it is time to initiate the conversation about love, sex and relationships - It is certainly better to GLEEK out than to freak out.

By Sarah Kershner, Evaluation Specialist at the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, PhD student at the University of South Carolina's Arnold School of Public Health
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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Episode Follows Teen Couple Through Infidelity, Violence

This week's “16 & Pregnant” cranked the drama-dial back up  with Florida senior Markai and her boyfriend James. When not dealing with financial struggle, infidelity and relationship violence, the intense episode was punctuated with warmth, humor and a little insight into odd-pregnancy behaviors. Markai eats soap and carries around a Pringles can to spit into because she says pregnancy has caused her to create too much saliva, but those things are revealed in passing.

Her mom Sarina isn’t happy that James doesn’t have a job, car or many prospects. Even though Markai is pregnant, her mom doesn’t want James to spend the night. When her mom asks the couple why they didn’t use condoms since she really emphasized how to use them and how to insist on them, James explains that condoms just got in the way. Wait… Isn’t that the point of using a barrier method? It is easy to see where her mom’s frustration comes from.

After reading a baby shower card from a friend talking about the possible jobs her unborn daughter might one day do, Markai talks to her mom. Her mom says, “All I could think was, I had those same dreams. And I just hope your daughter is not pregnant at 16.” Ouch. Through it all, even though she gives a lot of tough love, Sarina is supportive. She lets James move in after baby Za’Karia is born because she says it isn’t fair for Markai to be the only one who is exhausted from taking care of the baby.

On her first day back to high school, Markai leaves in tears after finding out that James had unprotected sex with his ex-girlfriend at the beginning of their relationship. I doubt MTV will be developing a show called “16 & I got a sexually transmitted infection because I trusted my boyfriend and didn’t want a condom to come in between us,” but I think this is a wake up call moment for Markai (and hopefully viewers!) to what else could have happened. Blindly trusting your high school boyfriend or girlfriend isn’t an effective way to protect yourself against STIs or pregnancy.

After finding out about the cheating, Markai gets into a fight with James. She stops the car and gets out, but when James gets out to talk to her, she punches him. He is able to restrain her and she quickly dissolves into tears in his arms. Though the scene was probably less than 30 seconds long, it is enough to spark more conversation about teens relationship violence.

As they did with the Amber/Gary violence on “Teen Mom,” MTV added relationship violence PSAs for during commercial breaks. James later jokes about the incident, saying he must really love her to put up with her after she hit him. The couple laughs about it on the show, but it is hard to imagine the same dialogue happening if the violence were reversed and James was the one throwing punches.

On the after show, Markai seems somber about that incident and says she doesn’t use hitting to deal with her arguments with James anymore. She says she can already see how Za’Karia reacts when her parents are fighting and that is enough motivation to find other outlets for frustration. Despite the hardships, she says she and James are both working, focusing on education and living in their own apartment now.

By Elizabeth Benfield, graduate assistant at the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, MPH student at the University of South Carolina's Arnold School of Public Health
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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Adults Could be Learning from '16 and Pregnant' too

This week’s “16 & Pregnant” featured Emily, an Alabama 11th grader, and her shaggy haired boyfriend Daniel.  There were no mean text messages or screaming fights with parents this week. Instead, the hurdles Emily face were more subtle, and raise questions about how families, schools and doctors can help prevent teen pregnancy and help teen moms.

While the episode lacked some of its usual drama, her pregnancy isn't depicted as easy. Emily’s mom kicked her out after finding out she was pregnant, and her dad and stepmom reluctantly let her move in with them. Later, she is forced to enroll in homeschooling after her school tells her they aren’t going to give her more than 10 days of absences after the baby is born. When Daniel doesn’t come to visit very often, Emily says she is feeling resentful but doesn't blow up or demand he take more days off work.

Tthrough all of this, the range of emotion is pretty narrow, varying from slightly uncomfortable to slightly upset to slightly nervous. The most touching scenes are of Emily and Daniel crying after baby Liam is born, and her gruff dad crying the first time he gets to hold his new grandson.

The subdued storyline this week gave me a chance to notice just how young this couple seemed. When Daniel tells the nurse that he is nervous about “everything,” he looks more like he should be skateboarding in the hospital parking lot rather than sitting in a delivery room.

Like last week, the episode left a lot of room for discussion about teen pregnancy. During the after show, Emily says she got pregnant while on birth control pills because another drug interacted with their efficacy. She was too afraid to tell her mom about the birth control, so she didn’t ask the doctor about the new medicine. So, why didn’t the doctor offer a warning with the prescription anyway? If Emily had sex ed, was this ever mentioned as a possibility?

Emily’s school only offers 10-days off excused absences for new moms although her doctor recommended a month of rest after the birth. Teen pregnancy rates in Alabama are slightly greater than the national average at 73 per 1,000 (although lower than in S.C.), so why doesn’t the school have a way for new moms to keep attending school? If teen parenthood has been proven to be the number one reason teen girls drop out of school, then why aren’t there measures in place to help give new moms the best chance of success?

During the show and after show, Emily emphasizes how much Daniel and her dad want the couple to get married soon, but she seems only vaguely interested. While it makes sense that she wants to make her father happy (She is still a teen, remember?), it seems like marriage might not solve all the commitment issues or problems that come with being new teen parents. I’m sure the alternative, being a young single mother, is daunting, but is teen marriage the answer? According to the National Campaign, a third of marriages that begin before the bride is 18 end in divorce within the first five years, and nearly half end in ten years. Maybe there is no clear track that would give Emily, Daniel and Liam the best chance at success.

There has been a lot of discussion about using this show as an education tool for teens, but I think this show could reveal a lot to parents, educators and policy-makers about the consequences of having gaps in education and services to prevent teen pregnancy and support teen parents. Hopefully, they are watching too.

By Elizabeth Benfield, graduate assistant at the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, MPH student at the University of South Carolina's Arnold School of Public Health
Contact Elizabeth:

Monday, November 8, 2010

Halloween Condoms?

“Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to…wear?” This year, a couple in Oregon changed the words to this familiar song by handing out condoms to trick or treaters that were 16 or older (along with a very lengthy lecture on why using them is important). My first reaction to this was “Wha…I could have been trick or treating when I was 16…man!”, my second reaction wasn’t much better, “I bet these people are friends with the house that gives toothbrushes…bummer…” (Note: the couple actually GAVE out toothbrushes to their younger than 16 clientele). But my final reaction, my professional reaction was, “I bet this practice, and more than that, this article, has started the conversation for many parents in their neighborhood.”

Reactions in the traditionally liberal community have ranged from happy to enraged. Some parents felt this took the public health domain too far and that giving the young people condoms caused them to confront their sexuality before they were married. Others thought that because of the age range the couples used to decide who would be given the condoms, the practice was supporting young people who were already being confronted with sexual situations. Either way, to say the response was split is an understatement. So what can we take away from this?

Well, (A) we should stick to the M&M’s and Twix candy bars for Halloween, (B) parents should not wait until their children are well into puberty to address sex and sexuality, and (C) teachable moments are all around us. The “Talk” is not a one-time thing. And the “Talk” also doesn’t have an age requirement. Young people need to know their bodies will change so they aren’t scared when those changes occur and those all too familiar emotions and feelings show up. Teens need to know their parents are the experts in what is happening, as well as what is expected of them. So the next time your child shows up with a package and it doesn’t look like any gum you have ever seen, take the moment to talk to your young person first and ask them what they want to know…so the next Halloween won’t be nearly as scary!

By: Taylor Wilson
Taylor is a Grant Specialist for the SC Campaign and can be reached at!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Show Gets Grittier, but Still Room to Answer More Questions

Some people want to yell to characters in horror movies, but episodes like this week’s“16 & Pregnant” have me yelling at my TV. Instead of “Don’t go in there!” it is more like, “Don’t move out with him!” Hopefully this episode will serve as a voice to yell to teens in similar relationships, “Don’t have unprotected sex! Don’t date this person! Don’t pick your boyfriend over your mom!”

Seventeen-year-old Felicia, another Texas teen, struggles to be the first in her family to graduate high school while balancing new motherhood and a rocky relationship. Her boyfriend, a barber named Alex, displays a lot of red flags from the beginning that he might not be the most supportive teen father.

While the couple discusses how things have “changed” since Felicia became pregnant, and even though Felicia assures her mom that she will be able to graduate high school because she has Alex to support her, it is hard to believe that Alex was a very supportive boyfriend to begin with judging from his behavior on the episode.

After many arguments with her mom, Alex talks Felicia into moving out of her parent’s house and in with her sister so that they have more freedom and privacy. Except, instead of using this newfound freedom to start building their family, he uses it to come and (mostly) go as he pleases.
At 2:30 one morning, while he’s getting a tattoo, he explains to his friends, “I don’t like always to be, like, right there.”

So far, this season of “16 & Pregnant” seems a little grittier. After last week’s IUD insertion, this week Felicia is shown receiving her epidural and throwing up (while crying) during labor. During all of this, Alex asks her, “Why you taking so long? Huh?” and says, “Come on. It’s taking forever. Just push.” It’s really no surprise to anyone except Felicia that shortly after baby Genesis is born, Alex leaves “to change clothes” and doesn’t return.

In a show of great maturity, Felicia realizes that when she leaves the hospital, she should probably move back in with her parents so that she has some help raising her new daughter.

Felicia says on the after show interview that she is still on track to graduate high school. She also says she and Alex are still together, but doesn’t have much faith that things will last forever.

In one of the obligatory and awkwardly-staged scenes in every show, Felicia talks to her friends about how she got pregnant. She tells her friends that she and Alex had been together for two years and “barely” used condoms. While her friends were clearly prompted by the show to ask “how,” they weren’t prompted to ask “Why?” Why did they barely use condoms?

On the after-show Su-chin Pak asks Felicia why they didn’t use condoms, and she explains that they had sex for two years, so she just didn’t think it would happen. Felicia and Alex aren’t alone in this risky behavior. According to the CDC, in 2009 only 57.7% of sexually active Texas high school students reported using a condom during their last sexual encounter, a number similar for S.C. at 60% and the U.S. at 61.1%.

Even after the show and after her answer, I’m left wondering, “Why?” Why didn’t they know that the “it hasn’t happened yet”-method is not an effective form of birth control? Even though the show is giving a grittier portrayal of teen pregnancy, there is still room for more reality on this reality show.

By Elizabeth Benfield, graduate assistant at the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, MPH student at the University of South Carolina's Arnold School of Public Health

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

'16 and Pregnant' Second Season Returns

The latest season of MTV’s “16 & Pregnant” kicked off Tuesday night with an episode about Brooke, a 16-year-old high school junior from Texas, and her boyfriend-turned-husband Cody.

It seems like MTV is attempting to address concerns that the show, and its spinoff “Teen Mom,” have
glamorized the issue of teen pregnancy. 

The show followed its normal formula, following one teen mom and her respective challenges from pregnancy until a few months after the baby is born. At first glance, what makes Brooke stand out is her love for racing. After her wedding, complete with a groom wearing a racing jumpsuit and a tire-shaped wedding cake, her family heads to the race track for a mini-honeymoon.

But what really makes Brooke stand out from the other teens on “16 & Pregnant” is that she has access to a lot of information and services that other teens haven’t. In a candid talk, Brooke’s mom tells her she doesn’t know how she got pregnant since she showed her how to use condoms and provided them to her. Brooke just shrugs.

Before the baby is born, Brooke visits a group for teen moms at her school to get an idea of how she will juggle school with being a new mom. These are advantages a lot of teens and teen moms don’t have.

Brooke also has the advantage of having parents who are willing to offer support, as well as a partner who wants to be involved in raising the child. Of course, these relationships aren’t perfect, and their maturity level shows at times, like when Brooke says, “Cody would NEVER leave me, or his baby.” Clearly Brooke has not seen "Teen Mom," where Dad-turned-ex-drama is often front and center. 

They name their son Brody (Brooke + Cody, get it?), and in what might be the only televised IUD insertion I’ve ever seen, Brooke gets the longer lasting form of birth control from her doctor just weeks after the baby is born. While many of these scenes are fascinating, none of them seem like they would be very alluring to teens watching.

Brooke cleans her parents’ house in place of rent, but finds it overwhelming with Brody and school work. In one of the best and least sentimental quotes from the episode, her mom tells her, “I should not have to pick up a breast pad. ... Ever.” 

If anything, this episode was anti-glamorous. The couple looks into buying a pre-fabricated barn to move into, but decides they can’t afford it on Cody’s part-time pay check from a local convenience store. They argue about school and working, which leads to Brooke tearfully explaining that she would rather live at home with her parents for another year than have to drop out of school.

Even with family and partner support, there were lots of uncomfortable talks, financial issues and tears. Upcoming episodes will focus on different teens and their decisions, but so far I don’t think any teen could watch this episode and come away with a romanticized view of teen pregnancy.

By Elizabeth Benfield, graduate assistant at the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, MPH student at the University of South Carolina's Arnold School of Public Health
Contact Elizabeth: