When 16 and Pregnant debuted on MTV back in 2009, there were concerns that the show would glamorize teen pregnancy in the eyes of its younger viewers.
That turned out not to be the case, as teen pregnancy rates have actually declined in the years since the shows of the Teen Mom franchise became surprise hits.
Producers often take credit for this trend, but of course, there’s no evidence that it has anything to do with the cautionary tales presented on Teen Mom (later Teen Mom OG) or Teen Mom 2.
These days, the anticipated wave of unwed, high school-age mothers has been replaced by a new concern:
It seems that many within the industry are wondering if the show has had a damaging impact on its own cast members.
There are the Moms, of course, many of whom have struggled with addiction, violence, and trouble with the law.
(One main cast member, Amber Portwood, actually served prison time as a result of her violent tendencies, and several lesser-known participants have gone to jail for crimes ranging from domestic abuse to drug possession.)
But in the case of Teen Mom, the situation is especially perilous, as each storyline involves young children, many of whom are now old enough to understand the inherent strangeness of their situation.
As with teen pregnancy, there’s no way of quantifying the correlation between the Teen Mom series and its depressed, anxious, or addicted stars.
But execs at Viacom — the parent company of MTV — were concerned enough about the issue to bring in Teen Mom producer Morgan J. Freeman during a recent conference call about the longterm impact that reality television might have on its stars.
“I think our show might be the only time a conversation has come into play that addresses that,” Freeman told his bosses, according to The Ashley’s Reality Roundup.
He cited as an example an instance in which an unnamed star of the franchise was struggling with body image issues.
Freeman claimed that the production crew was able to intervene and help this person find the professional help they needed.
“Without us there I think it continues to spiral down a very dysfunctional path [for the person on the show],” he said.
“But there’s only so much we could do.”
As The Ashley points out, commenters on the Washington Post article that first covered the conference call indicated that readers were mostly unsympathetic toward MTV’s plight.
“There could’ve been so many reality TV shows that could’ve actually been related to music, but instead MTV chose to promote teen pregnancy, toxic behaviors, and materialism in shows like Pimp My Ride and MTV Cribs,” one person wrote.
“MTV: We need to produce more responsible television that doesn’t make mental health issues look desirable?! Also MTV: Here’s Teen Mom (I do P0rn Now) followed by 23 hours of Rob Dyrdek making jokes about people physically injuring themselves,” another chimed in.
There’s no denying that many Teen Mom stars have struggled with their mental health, or that the pressures of reality TV fame are likely to exacerbate those conditions.
That said, Freeman and the other producers have taken significant steps toward making the show a safer environment for stars who might be having a hard time.
For example, when Leah Messer was asked about her painkiller addiction during a 2020 interview, she credited Teen Mom 2 producers with helping her get clean.
“My kids wouldn’t have a mom had it not been for also MTV,” Leah said.
Importantly, Teen Mom execs have also cut ties with stars who presented a threat to others, such as when they fired Jenelle Evans back in 2019.
Obviously, the franchise and the entire reality TV industry have a long way to go in terms of protecting the mental health of their most vulnerable stars.
But it seems that Freeman and the folks at MTV are committed to making progress in that respect.
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