Two weeks ago, NEWSWEEK asked if the OK! Magazine cover and feature story featuring 17-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears and her new baby glamorized teen pregnancy. Our question elicited more than 2,000 comments and e-mails from teens and parents, debating how the media has covered the Spears pregnancy and teenage pregnancy in general. Did OK! help teen mothers by destigmatizing the issue? Or did it recklessly spread the message that being a pregnant teen is, well, OK.
A slight majority of readers felt that OK! made teen parenting look too fun and effortless. "I am outraged at the glamorization of teenage pregnancy by the media, especially magazines like OK," wrote a commenter with the user name lgatze. "I think the media need to take better responsibility as to how they present stories like these … The reality of teen pregnancy is harsh. Movies, magazines and other media need to clean it up."
But a sizeable number came away with the opposite reaction: this story was good for teen moms because it gave them a positive image to look toward, one that they rarely see. Aanoliliel wrote that the cover "showed it to its readers who are at this age so they don't feel 'dirty' when/if they do get pregnant." It could make teens more comfortable telling their parents, potentially increasing access to early, prenatal care, she continued. "The fact that so many don't feel comfortable telling their parents/adults when they do become pregnant should send a clear signal to parents as a warning sign that this country is screwed up."
A good number of teen moms drew from their own parenting experiences and came to disparate conclusions. Many praised the cover for showing a rare example of a successful teen mother. Mandymama, a 28-year-old former teen mother (and college graduate) wrote, "I think it's nice to see a story about a young woman who got pregnant and took responsibility. Also, the man took responsibility as well. Refreshing, positive morals … if it happens, it is not the end of the world. You can live a perfect, happy, normal life and still be the best person that you can be."
The teen parents who criticized the story largely felt that it did nothing to represent the difficulties they themselves had faced. "Her story does not show the true hardship that pregnant teen mothers face," wrote jcoles2, a former teen mom who is now 31. "Being a teen mother makes life difficult at best … the first time an adult talked to me about these things I was already 6 months pregnant at 15." Kieryjohns25 added, "I had a baby at 16, it was NOT easy, I did NOT look radiant and beautiful."
Readers hit on a very fine line in the teen-pregnancy debate: how do you accurately convey the difficulties and disadvantages of teen parenting while not, at the same time, shunning the 400,000 American teens who, for the past three decades, have given birth every year? Experts interviewed by NEWSWEEK quickly admit that there's no easy answer. "Part of me thinks it's better to normalize [teen pregnancy] because it makes it easier for those moms to be more accepted," says Andrea O'Reilly, founder and director of the Association for Research on Mothering at York University in Toronto. "But then at the same time you worry you might be romanticizing teen pregnancy, setting up a girl for something she's not ready for. I think that's a fine line that we can't get rid of." O'Reilly ideally would like to see more honest portrayals of teen parents in the media. When asked specifically about the Jamie Lynn Spears cover, she says, yes, she would keep the magazine out there. "I still think it's moving us in the right direction; we're talking about it," O'Reilly explains. "I know it makes everything look easy, and that's a problem, but nonetheless people are talking about it so that can't be a bad thing."
One of the most thoughtful reactions came from Melody Hobert-Mellecker, whom I spoke with for a subsequent story on teen pregnancy in the media. She is the mother of Meghan Mellecker, a 15-year-old teen parent (to 8-month-old Sophia.) In the days leading up to our interview, she had been reading through the comments on Newsweek.com, and, when we spoke, she mentioned how upsetting they were. She didn't quite get why hundreds of commenters were pouring their time into criticizing teen parents. "It's really hurtful to see grown adults attacking teenagers like that," she says. After helping her 15-year-old through a pregnancy and now as a parent, what she has come away with is this: "Yes, we would not choose for [teens] to get pregnant, we don't want them to get pregnant, they shouldn't be having sex and, yes, Jamie Lynn does make it look all too easy. But you know what, when has it ever stopped teens? She is not the first teenage girl to get pregnant, and she won't be the last. There are plenty of places that these people who are spending their time criticizing teen moms could spend their excess energy." She immediately sees one option: "Having an honest discussion about sex with their teens, instead of criticizing other kids."