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The Teen Mom Phenomenon: Why Are We So Obsessed?

Photo: Thinkstock / The Bump

Remember the days when teen pregnancy was only talked about in light-hearted 80s dramedies or Lifetime original movies? Yep, seems like forever ago now. I first learned about the teen pregnancy problem right around the same time I discovered there was a much more entertaining alternative to after-school specials: HBO. And I’ll never forget the day I flipped on the TV and caught an airing of For Keeps. For those of you who either don’t remember or were too busy watching The Land Before Time, For Keeps was the 1988 Molly Ringwald flop in which she gets pregnant by her high school boyfriend and the two decide to keep the baby and set up house. They soon find out that teenage parenthood isn’t exactly a walk in the park and hit a few rough patches; but eventually, it all works out for the better. Needless to say, I totally wanted to be Molly Ringwald when I grew up. And hey, For Keeps sure made teen pregnancy look kind of...well, cool.

To answer your question: No, I never became a pregnant teen. But thanks to MTV, my teen mom obsession is back with a vengeance. Every Tuesday night, I set my DVR to record Teen Mom so I can find out what’s going on this week with hot-tempered Amber and lazy but loveable Gaaaaary (has she dumped him for the umpteenth time?); I want to know what the status is with Farrah and her crazy-eyed mom (who can forget the headline-making kitchen knife debacle?), how Maci is doing with Kyle (and dealing with her deadbeat dad of an ex, Ryan), and of course, whether or not Catelynn and Tyler are still going strong. And I’m not alone. (Show of hands: Who caught last night's tear-jerker of a reunion episode with Dr. Drew?) If recent covers of People, OK!, and Us Weekly are any indication, the Teen Mom obsession has pretty much gripped the entire nation.

Yep, we sure have come a long way in the last couple of decades. Now we see just how hard the struggle is for teens to raise babies on their own, pay bills, maintain their relationships, and try their damndest not to miss out on life -- all before their 18th birthdays. And, surely, with all that unfiltered, non-sugar-coated representation of life as a teen mom, the youth of America are bound to be scared straight into having safe sex -- or even better, no sex at all -- right? Wrong.

Believe it or not, according to a 2010 CDC study, teen pregnancy is actually on the rise for the first time in 10 years -- and doesn’t seem to be stopping. (All this despite the fact that a new study claims teens are actually way more condom-conscious than adults.) What's more, another study revealed that the number of teens who felt it was "okay" for teens to get pregnant was 70 percent for girls, 64 percent for boys. (Yes, those were the actual findings.) Maybe even more alarming: The number of teens who claim to practice the rhythm method (laying off sex during ovulation, when your chances of becoming pregnant increase) rose 6 percent since they were last surveyed in 2002; which is pretty scary considering this method fails 25 percent of the time.

So why aren’t teens a little more freaked out by teen parenthood after seeing the gritty reality of teen pregnancy replay every week at 10 p.m.? Hmmm...just a shot in the dark here, but it may have less to do with the show itself and more to do with all the stardom that’s come with it. Some might say it all started with Jamie Lynn Spears. And then Bristol. First came the water-cooler talk and the judgments. Then out came...the glossy magazine covers and the multi-page spreads. Suddenly, we got used to the endless parade of paparazzi photos and the nonstop Entertainment Tonight coverage. Soon our shock was replaced with an undying need to know if Casey and Jamie Lynn were sticking it out, and we ate up every detail (and still do) of the Bristol-Levi saga.

We regularly chat not so much about Maci's and Farrah's struggles as young moms but about how great they look all glammed up with their babies on the cover of OK! We eat up Amber giving weight-loss tips to her fans, as she’s slugging Gary on national TV and landing herself a visit from CPS. And yes, we ooo and aww at the sight of Catelynn and Tyler on the cover of People talking about how they’ve made it through their first year without Carly. The harsh reality of their lives shown on T.V. has been overshadowed by one word: fame.

Thankfully, our government hasn’t been swept up by all the glitz. According to news that broke just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced they’re investing a whopping $155 million into teen pregnancy prevention, in an effort to replicate safe sex programs that studies have proven successful. But the question is: Do we think it’ll work?

Are you obsessed with Teen Mom? Do you think your attitudes toward teen pregnancy have shifted at all since the show started airing?

-- Kaitlin Stanford