Sexuality & Culture

, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 50–66

Father–Daughter Communication About Sex Moderates the Association Between Exposure to MTV’s 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom and Female Students’ Pregnancy-Risk Behavior

Authors

    • Department of TelecommunicationsIndiana University
  • Ashley K. Randall
    • Department of Family Studies and Human DevelopmentUniversity of Arizona
  • Analisa Arroyo
    • Department of CommunicationUniversity of Arizona
Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s12119-012-9137-2

Cite this article as:
Wright, P.J., Randall, A.K. & Arroyo, A. Sexuality & Culture (2013) 17: 50. doi:10.1007/s12119-012-9137-2

Abstract

MTV’s hit programs 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom have been the subject of national debate since their inception. Supporters contend that the shows inhibit pregnancy-risk behavior. Critics contend that the shows glamorize adolescent motherhood and encourage pregnancy-risk behavior. The present study explored the possibility that the association between viewing 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom and student females’ pregnancy-risk behavior depends on the extent to which females’ parents communicated with them about sex while they were growing up. Survey data were gathered from 313 female students. A disordinal interaction was found between father–daughter sexual communication, viewing frequency, and recent intercourse behavior. Frequent viewing was associated with an increased probability of having engaged in recent intercourse for females whose fathers did not communicate with them about sex while growing up. Conversely, frequent viewing was associated with a decreased probability of having engaged in recent intercourse for females whose fathers often communicated about sex with them while growing up. No interaction was found between mother–daughter sexual communication, viewing frequency, and recent intercourse behavior. These results suggest that fathers may play an especially important role in determining how sexual media socialize their daughters.

Keywords

16 and PregnantTeen momMTVSexual socializationPregnancy-riskSexual communicationFamily communication

Introduction

Public health researchers have speculated for some time that entertainment television’s portrayal of sex as a recreational activity devoid of consequences (Wright 2009a) may be contributing to the risky sexual behavior of youth in the United States (American Academy of Pediatrics 2001). Recent research supports this hypothesis (Wright et al. 2012). The sway of the small screen need not be epidemiologically untoward, however. Programs that highlight the risks and responsibilities that accompany sex or that include information about safe sex should have prosocial effects on youth (Brown et al. 2002). Working in consultation with The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (NCPTUP), in 2009 MTV debuted 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom. According to their creator, these programs were developed to show young people “the honest, unpleasant truth of teen pregnancy” (Dolgen 2011, para. 8). But critics have castigated the shows, accusing them of rewarding adolescent moms with stardom and glossing over many of the harsh realities of adolescent motherhood (Marcus 2011; Bauer 2011; Bellafante 2009). This brief report informs the debate about the social impact of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom by exploring the interplay between female students’ exposure to these programs, history of communication about sex with parents, and recent intercourse behavior.

Entertainment Television and Youth Sexuality

Data on the socializing potential of sexual television have been sparse until recently. The paucity of studies available in the past led social scientists to conjecture about television’s “great potential for playing an important role in the sexual socialization of our youth” (Brown et al. 1990, p. 68) and to speculate that research on the impact of television on youths’ sexual behavior “very likely will find patterns of effects similar to those established for violent content” (Brown and Steele 1995, p. 24). National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and National Institute of Mental Health sponsored longitudinal research carried out in the last 10 years has lent empirical credence to these predictions. Exposure to sexual television prospectively predicts early intercourse onset (Collins et al. 2004), pregnancy involvement (Chandra et al. 2008), and the contraction of chlamydia, trichomoniasis, or gonorrhea (Wingood et al. 2003) among youth aged 13–20 in the United States. Cross-sectional research with youth in their early twenties parallels the results of these longitudinal studies. Among college students, sexual television viewing is positively correlated with higher levels of sexual experience (Ward and Rivadeneyra 1999), having more sexual partners (Strouse and Buerkel-Rothfuss 1987), and more negative attitudes towards abstinence (Ward et al. 2011).

Conversely, some research suggests the potential for entertainment television to function as a “healthy sex educator” for youth (Collins et al. 2003, p. 1115). For example, a study exploring the effects of an episode of Friends that mentioned condoms suggests that the program taught some youth new information about condoms, increased some youths’ perceptions of the efficacy of condoms, and stimulated parent–child sexual discussion (Collins et al. 2003). Similarly, Farrar (2006) demonstrated that exposure to episodes of Party of Five, Felicity, and Popular that stressed the importance of condoms caused female students to have more positive attitudes towards condoms.

In summary, the blanket effect of sexual television on youths’ risky sexual behavior is disinhibitive due to television’s predominate portrayal of sex as risk and responsibility free. At least some evidence, however, suggests that television could inhibit the risky sexual behavior of youth if more messages about sexual risk and responsibility were conveyed.

16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom

16 and Pregnant is a documentary series that chronicles the experiences of pregnant teen moms over approximately a 5–7 month period. 16 and Pregnant debuted in June of 2009. Teen Mom is a spinoff series in which the lives of four teen moms from the prior season of 16 and Pregnant are followed through their first year of motherhood. Teen Mom debuted in December of 2009. Whether 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom portray motherhood in ways that encourage or discourage youth pregnancy has been the subject of heated national debate since these programs’ inception (Albert 2010; Bellafante 2009; Dolgen 2011; Jonsson 2010; Marcus 2011; Roeper 2011).

According to MTV’s website promoting the show, 16 and Pregnant “offers a unique look into the wide variety of challenges pregnant teens face” including “finances,” “gossip,” and having to “sacrifice their teenage years.” Likewise, MTV’s website says Teen Mom “offers a unique look into the wide variety of challenges young mothers can face,” including “navigating the bumpy terrain of adolescence, growing pains, and coming of age—all while facing the responsibility of being a young mother.” Although critics acknowledge that challenges associated with being a young mom are presented on 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, they argue that the shows ultimately glamorize adolescent motherhood. The New York Times (Bellafante 2009, para. 7) argues that the ultimate message of 16 and Pregnant is that being an adolescent mom “is as good a road to character development as any.” The Huffington Post (Marcus 2011, para. 4) laments that the mothers on Teen Mom are “celebrities” instead of “ordinary young women struggling to raise their children.” The Chicago Sun Times (Roeper 2011, para. 5) criticizes the programs for sending the message that getting pregnant is potentially a “pathway to fame.”

Given the controversy and divided opinions surrounding the programs, NCPTUP carried out an experimental study to assess the actual impact of the show that started the debate, 16 and Pregnant (Suellentrop et al. 2010). Youth between the ages of 12 and 19 from 18 different Boys & Girls Clubs of America in a southern state either did or did not watch three episodes (one per day) of 16 and Pregnant. Counter to the assertions of the program’s supporters, “teens who had never had sex” in the exposure group were more likely to believe that “most teens want to get pregnant, and that if they were to get pregnant or cause a pregnancy, that they ‘will be with the baby’s mother/father forever’” (Suellentrop et al. 2010, p. 3). Likewise, regardless of their level of sexual experience, participants in the exposure group were more likely to believe that their peers want to get pregnant. Given these findings, the study’s authors concluded that “viewing 16 and Pregnant could have an undesirable effect on some viewers” (Suellentrop et al. 2010, p. 3).

Wright (2011) has proposed a sexual script acquisition, activation, application (3AM) model of sexual socialization that may inform research in this area. Sexual scripts provide individuals with rules for determining appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior and also portend the outcomes of various sexual decisions. According to the model, sexual media can provide viewers with sexual scripts they were unaware of [acquisition], prime sexual scripts they were already aware of [activation], and encourage or discourage the utilization of sexual scripts [application] by portraying them as normative or abnormal, acceptable or unacceptable, and rewarding or punishing. The model maintains that the existing sexual scripts possessed by viewers should moderate the effects of exposure to sexual media. Existing sexual scripts should affect the particular elements of televised sexual content viewers attend to and the likelihood that viewers will act on what they have observed. According to the 3AM, scripts acquired at younger ages hold special sway. For example, a young female who was taught from an early age that adolescent motherhood is fraught with perils and difficulties should be (a) more likely to focus on elements of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom that emphasize the challenges of being a young mother and (b) less likely to model sexual behavior that would increase her risk of pregnancy, in comparison to a young female who has not received such instruction.

Adolescents in the United States say that the sexual scripts provided by parents have the potential to influence them more than scripts provided by any other source (Albert 2010). Approximately 80 % of adolescents say that it would be easier for them to “delay sexual activity and avoid teen pregnancy” if their parents communicated with them about these topics (Albert 2010, p. 5). Correspondingly, many studies have found negative correlations between parent–child sexual communication and children’s risky sexual behavior (Meschke et al. 2000). Yet research on whether parent–child sexual communication moderates the relationship between exposure to media sex and youths’ sexual behavior is nonexistent. At least one study, however, has found that children from families with an open communication style are less affected by sex on television than children in families with restrictive communication norms (Bryant and Rockwell 1994). Consequently, the present study explores whether parent–child sexual communication during children’s developmental years moderates the relationship between exposure to 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom and female students’ recent intercourse behavior. The overall association between exposure and recent intercourse behavior is also examined, as are exposure levels and potential demographic differences in degree of exposure. Stated formally, the present study asks:
  • RQ1: How often do females view 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom?

  • RQ2: Does viewing frequency vary according to females’ demographic characteristics?

  • RQ3: Is there an overall association between exposure to 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom and females’ recent intercourse behavior?

  • RQ4: Does the association between exposure to 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom and females’ recent intercourse behavior depend on how often their mother and father communicated with them about sex while they were growing up?

Method

Participants

Participants were 313 unmarried female students between the ages of 18 and 23 (37.7 % were 19 or younger; 72.2 % were 21 or younger). All participants were sexually attracted to males. Fifty percent of participants were currently in a committed relationship (coded 1), 50 % of participants were not currently in a committed relationship (coded 2). White participants comprised 56.5 % of the sample, 18.5 % were Hispanic, 13.1 % Asian, 4.2 % Black, 1.9 % Middle Eastern, 1 % “Other.” The remaining participants (4.8 %) declined to identify their ethnicity. The majority of participants identified as Christian (64.9 %), 4.8 % as Jewish, 1.9 % as Buddhist, 1.3 % as Muslim, .6 % as Hindu, 15 % as an alternate religion. The remaining participants (11.5 %) did not belong to any religion. Participants were recruited from two large universities, one in the southwest and one on the west coast. Data were collected via an online survey in the Spring of 2011.

Collegiate females were chosen for analysis for several reasons. First, MTV identifies college students as one of its primary audiences (Seidman 2011). Second, NCPTUP (2009) has recently highlighted the importance of understanding pregnancy-risk among college students. According to NCPTUP (2009), pregnancy can “distract, delay, or derail students from reaching their educational goals” (p. 2). Likewise, Hock (2007) argues that avoiding pregnancy is a key factor in collegiate female retention. In alignment with these assertions, one recent study found that 61 % of female collegians who had children did not graduate, a dropout rate 65 % higher than for their peers who did not have children (NCPTUP 2009). Indeed, being involved in a pregnancy has been reported as a reason for dropping out by college students for some time (Ramist 1981). Finally, collegiate females were chosen for analysis because Ward et al. (2011) have recently stressed the importance of media use and sexual behavior research among “older youths”:

Much of the existing research exploring connections between media use and sexual behavior has targeted adolescents, working to capture youths as they initiate their sexual journeys. Although this is an understandable approach, it actually taps a minimally sexual population…As a result, little is known about how sexual content affects older youths and those who are already sexually active. This is unfortunate, given data that sexually risky behaviors actually peak during the ages of 18–25 (Arnett 2000). (p. 593)

Measures

The study’s measures are described below. Correlations and descriptive statistics are displayed in Table 1.
Table 1

Descriptive statistics and zero-order correlations

Variable

Mean (SD)

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

1. Intercourse in last 12 months

.70 (.46)

.15**

.02

−.12*

.02

−.07

.19**

−.29**

2. Age

20.56 (1.46)

.06

−.29**

.12*

.04

.09

−.01

3. Religiousa

.88 (.32)

−.24**

−.15*

−.02

.01

.08

4. Ethnicityb

.41 (.49)

−.12*

−.11

−.15*

.08

5. Mother sexual communication

2.63 (1.20)

.32**

.05

−.03

6. Father sexual communication

1.69 (.87)

.04

.01

7. 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom

3.30 (1.50)

−.07

8. Relationship status

1.50 (.50)

aReligious codes: 0 = no religious affiliation; 1 = religious affiliation. Ethnicity codes: 0 = White; 1 = Nonwhite

p < .05, ** p < .01

16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom

Exposure to 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom was assessed by asking participants to indicate the number of times they had seen these programs. Response options ranged from (1) never (2) once or twice (3) between three and five times (4) between six and ten times (5) more than ten times. Viewing one program was highly correlated with viewing the other (r = .89, p < .01). Viewing scores were summed and then averaged when exposure to 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom acted as a predictor variable (i.e., predictor = 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom).

Moderator Variables

Mother Sexual Communication

To assess how frequently mothers communicated about sex with participants during their childhood, the following question was asked: “How often did your mother communicate with you about sex growing up?” Response options were (1) never (2) rarely (3) sometimes (4) often and (5) very often. A “not applicable” option was also provided, in the event that participants did not know their mother. One participant selected this option.

Father Sexual Communication

To assess how frequently fathers communicated about sex with participants during their childhood, the following question was asked: “How often did your father communicate with you about sex growing up?” Response options were (1) never (2) rarely (3) sometimes (4) often and (5) very often. A “not applicable” option was also provided, in the event that participants did not know their father. Ten participants selected this option.

Outcome Variable

Recent Intercourse behavior

Participants were asked if they had engaged in sexual intercourse within the last 12 months. “No” responses were coded 0; “Yes” responses were coded 1. Of the 302 participants who responded to this question, 70.2 % had engaged in sexual intercourse in the last 12 months.

Recent intercourse behavior was chosen as the outcome measure for several reasons. First, as a cause must precede its effect (Wright 2011) and 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom debuted in 2009, it was important to assess chronologically recent pregnancy-risk behavior. Second, studies of students’ sexual motivations consistently find that avoiding pregnancy is a primary motivation for sexual abstinence (Abbott and Dalla 2008; Blinn-Pike et al. 2004; Dunsmore 2005; Kembi 2008; Loewenson et al. 2004). Third, data from the National Survey of Family Growth show that between 48 and 51 % of “unintended conceptions…occurred during a month when contraceptives were used” (Finer and Henshaw 2006, p. 90). This is why parties interested in youths’ sexual health ranging from the Centers for Disease Control (Centers for Disease Control 2012), to MTV (Preventing pregnancy 2012), to collegiate health practitioners (Buckner 2010) frequently repeat the mantra that “abstinence is the only 100 % way of preventing pregnancy” (Blinn-Pike et al. 2004, p. 509). Studies of students’ motivations for abstinence and sexual and reproductive knowledge indicate that students are well aware that even intercourse with contraceptives can pose risks (Abbot and Dalla 2008; Blinn-Pike et al. 2004; Brien et al. 1994, Dunsmore 2005; Harper and Ellertson 1995; Kembi 2008; Loewenson et al. 2004; Ruth and Dotger 2011; Vahratian et al. 2008).

Finally, because not all female students want to avoid pregnancy, the decision to engage in intercourse may be indicative of an openness to becoming pregnant. For example, national data suggest that approximately 40 % of college-age women who become pregnant do so intentionally (Vahratian et al. 2008). In sum, recent intercourse behavior was chosen as the outcome measure because (a) of the incipiency of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, (b) one of students’ chief reasons for abstinence is pregnancy avoidance, (c) students are aware that intercourse with contraceptives still poses risks, and (d) pregnancy data suggest that some female students’ have pregnancy as a motive for engaging in intercourse.

Results

RQ1: Viewing Frequency

16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom ranged in popularity across the present sample, although 83.7 % of participants had seen 16 and Pregnant and 80 % had seen Teen Mom at least once. 16.3 % had never seen 16 and Pregnant, 20 % had never seen Teen Mom. 19 % had seen 16 and Pregnant once or twice, 18.3 % had seen Teen Mom once or twice. 17 % had seen 16 and Pregnant between three and five times, 11.7 % had seen Teen Mom between three and five times. 12.7 % had seen 16 and Pregnant between six and ten times, 13.7 % had seen Teen Mom between six and ten times. 35 % had seen 16 and Pregnant more than ten times, 36.3 % had seen Teen Mom more than ten times.

RQ2: Viewing Frequency by Demographic Characteristics

Nonwhites were less likely than Whites to view both 16 and Pregnant (r = −.13, p < .05) and Teen Mom (r = −.16, p < .01). For example, nearly a quarter (24 %) of Nonwhites had never seen an episode of 16 and Pregnant, whereas only 12 % of Whites had never seen an episode of 16 and Pregnant. Similarly, more Whites (41 %) reported having seen Teen Mom more than ten times than Nonwhites (30 %) reported having seen Teen Mom more than ten times (see Table 2).
Table 2

Exposure to 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom among Whites and Nonwhites

 

16 and Pregnant

Teen Mom

Viewing frequency

White (%)

Nonwhite (%)

White (%)

Nonwhite (%)

Never

12.2

23.7

14.0

28.1

Once or twice

18.0

18.4

18.6

14.9

Between three and five times

17.4

15.8

10.5

14.9

Between six and ten times

14.0

10.5

15.6

12.3

More than ten times

38.4

31.6

41.3

29.8

Diversity in viewing frequency by age and religious affiliation were also explored. Significant differences did not emerge for either demographic predictor.

RQ3: Overall Association Between Viewing Frequency and Recent Intercourse Behavior

Research question three asked if there was an overall association between exposure to 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom and females’ recent intercourse behavior. A one unit increase in exposure was associated with a 1.32 (95 % CI: 1.11–1.56) increase in the odds of recent intercourse. This association remained after controlling for ethnicity and relationship status (OR = 1.28, 95 % CI = 1.07–1.53).

RQ4: Moderating Role of Parental Communication About Sex

Two hierarchical logistic regression analyses were carried out to assess the moderating potential of mother and father sexual communication. Ethnicity and relationship status were entered in the first block, mean-centered mother or father sexual communication and mean-centered 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom in the second block, and the interaction of mean-centered mother or father sexual communication and mean-centered 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom in the third block. Change in χ2 was used to assess the contribution of the interaction term to the model (Rose et al. 2000).

The interaction of mother sexual communication and 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom did not make a significant contribution to its model (Δχ2 = .01, p = .92). Conversely, the interaction of father sexual communication and 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom did significantly contribute to its model (Δχ2 = 3.88, p < .05). Additionally, in the final step of the father sexual communication model, higher levels of father sexual communication were associated with a lower probability of recent intercourse at the p = .05 level (OR = .74, 95 % CI = .54–1.00). Given that 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom was mean-centered, this association represents the relationship between father sexual communication and recent intercourse at average levels of 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom exposure (Aiken and West 1991).

To interpret the significant interaction between father sexual communication and 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom, the probability of having engaged in recent intercourse was calculated at “low” and “high” levels of father sexual communication crossed with “low” and “high” levels of exposure to 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom (Aiken and West 1991). To maximize the difference between low and high categories while at the same time taking into account actual variable distributions, low father sexual communication = never, high father sexual communication = often, low 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom = never, high 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom = more than ten times.

The logistic regression equation is: \( P\left( Y \right) = \left[ 1 \right]/\left[ {1 + e^{ - (b0 + b1x1 + b2x2 + \cdots + bnxn)} } \right] \) (Field 2005). The equation “predicts the probability of Y occurring [Y = the dependent variable] given known values of X1 (or Xs) [Xs = the predictor variables]” (Field 2005, p. 220). Probability calculations do not require the deletion of any data. The logistic regression equation is developed using the complete data set. Probabilities are obtained by entering the values of the predictor variables being explored into the equation and obtaining the associated probabilities. As indicated in Table 3, the probability of recent intercourse increases as exposure to 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom increases for females whose fathers did not communicate with them about sex growing up. Conversely, the probability of recent intercourse decreases as exposure to 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom increases for females whose fathers often communicated with them about sex growing up.
Table 3

Estimated probabilities of intercourse occurring in the last 12 months, from the interaction of father sexual communication and 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom

 

16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom

Father communication

Low

High

Low

.36

.67

High

.48

.21

Probability values vary between 0 and 1. Probabilities close to 0 indicate a very low chance of an outcome occurring, probabilities close to 1 indicate a very high chance of an outcome occurring (Field 2005)

Figure 1 shows the plot of the interaction between father sexual communication and 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom. As can be seen, there is a positive association between exposure to 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom and the probability of recent intercourse when father sexual communication is low, and a negative association between exposure to 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom and the probability of recent intercourse when father sexual communication is high.
https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs12119-012-9137-2/MediaObjects/12119_2012_9137_Fig1_HTML.gif
Fig. 1

Interaction of father sexual communication and 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom on females’ recent intercourse behavior

Discussion

The primary purpose of the present study was to test whether parent–child sexual communication moderates the association between exposure to 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom and female students’ sexual behavior. Levels of exposure to 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom were also explored.

In alignment with the programs’ high ratings (Seidman 2011), 84 % of participants had seen 16 and Pregnant and 80 % had seen Teen Mom. There was variability in viewing frequency for both programs, however. For instance, although more participants selected “more than ten times” than any other category when asked how many times they had seen each program, between 12 and 20 % selected an alternative category (i.e., never, once or twice, between three and five times, or between six and ten times) when asked about their viewing frequency.

Whites were more likely than Nonwhites to view both programs. Although other factors may account for this difference (e.g., access to cable/satellite television), an explanation that is theoretically driven and supported by prior research is ethnic identity. Whites comprise the majority of moms on these programs. Harwood’s (1997) social identity gratifications theory posits that people select and avoid media content based on their group memberships. Several studies provide support for the general premise that social identities guide media selection (Harwood 1999a, b). Studies also support the specific position that ethnicity is a social identity influential in media selection. For example, Abrams and Giles (2009) found that Hispanic college students who highly identify with their ethnic group select media that depict vital images of other Hispanics. Abrams (2010) found an identical pattern among Asian American college students. Mastro (2010) argues that majority groups (e.g., Whites) are most advantaged when it comes to media selection, as they are portrayed more often and more positively than their minority counterparts. Thus, it appears that individuals’ selection of media is a product of the social groups they belong to, particularly their ethnic groups. The results of this study are in alignment with this position. In summary, the results of this study provide additional evidence of the popularity of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom but also suggest that some females—Whites in particular—are more likely to watch these programs.

The association between exposure to 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom and females’ recent intercourse behavior was contingent upon the degree to which females’ fathers communicated with them about sex while they were growing up. Higher levels of exposure to 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom were associated with an increased likelihood of having engaged in recent intercourse for females whose fathers did not communicate with them about sex while they were growing up. Conversely, higher levels of exposure to 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom were associated with a decreased likelihood of having engaged in recent intercourse for females whose fathers often communicated about sex with them while they were growing up.

Studies demonstrating the socializing effects of father-child sexual communication (Wright 2009b), the literature on the effects of entertainment media on youths’ sexual attitudes and behavior (Wright et al. 2012), and the theoretical assertion of the 3AM (Wright 2011) that previously acquired sexual scripts affect both the acquisition and application of subsequently encountered sexual scripts suggest the following explanation for these results. To begin, although father–daughter sexual communication can be awkward for both parent and child (Collins et al. 2008; Peterson 2006), fathers who communicate with daughters about sex can reduce the likelihood that their daughters will engage in risky sexual behavior (Wright 2009b). For instance, studies have found that young women whose fathers communicated with them about sex are more likely to use contraception (Somers and Paulson 2000), are more likely to engage in safe sex communication (Hutchinson and Cooney 1998), and are less likely to be sexually active (Hutchinson and Montgomery 2007; Somers and Vollmar 2006). These associations are probably due to the fact that fathers who communicate with daughters about sex are especially apt to talk about the negatives of premarital sex (Nolin and Peterson 1992), to speak of males’ propensity for placing sexual pressure on females (Miller et al. 1998), and to point out the negative consequences that result from the risky sexual behavior of others (Hepburn 1983). Females who have been regularly sent these types of messages should be especially likely to attend to the negatives of being a young mother that are depicted on 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom. The more they watch these programs, the more the negatives are reinforced, and the more motivated they become to avoid getting pregnant.

Conversely, females who have not received such messages should be more likely to attend to the positive traits of the teen moms and young motherhood that are depicted on 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom. For example, “there is an optimism” about the mothers on 16 and Pregnant, according to MTV’s online description of the program: “They have the dedication to make their lives work, and to do as they see fit to provide the best for their babies.” Similarly, MTV’s online description of TeenMom talks about the mothers’ taking the “exciting step of moving out of the nest to create their own families.” Consequently, the more females who have not received repeated warnings about the perils young mothers face view these programs, the more positive attitudes they develop about being a mother, and the less motivated they become to avoid getting pregnant.

To conclude, prior research and theory point toward the following account for the results of the present study. On one hand, viewing 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom inhibits the pregnancy-risk behavior of females whose fathers have often communicated with them about sex due to the risk-averse scripts they have internalized and the often negative portrayals of teen motherhood depicted on the programs. On the other hand, viewing 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom disinhibits the pregnancy-risk behavior of females whose fathers have not communicated the challenges of teen motherhood because they are more able to overlook the negatives depicted and focus on the excitement and positive possibilities associated with being a young mother.

What can be made of the non-significant interaction between mother sexual communication and 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom? The possibility most congruent with the arguments already put forward is that mothers are less prone to strongly and unambiguously discourage pregnancy-risk behavior than fathers. For example, an observational study of mother-father-child AIDS discussions found that mother–child interactions were characterized by more equality, reciprocity, and give and take than father-child interactions (Whalen et al. 1996). This possibility should be addressed in future research.

Limitations and Future Directions

Although the explanation just outlined is supported by existing theory and research, the cross-sectional nature of the present study leaves open the possibility of selective-exposure and cognitive dissonance as an alternative explanation (Severin and Tankard 2001). Specifically, sexually active unmarried female students whose fathers discouraged them from engaging in premarital sex may have high levels of sex guilt (Averett et al. 2008). As a result they may avoid messages that remind them that they are acting against their fathers’ wishes. In other words, it is possible that the negative association between exposure to 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom and recent intercourse behavior that was found for participants whose fathers often talked with them about sex is due to these females actively avoiding the programs to avoid the cognitive dissonance caused by sex guilt. Alternatively, sexually active unmarried female students whose fathers did not discuss sex with them may have little or no sex guilt and may identify positively with other sexually active unmarried females. Consequently, it is possible that the positive association between exposure to 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom and recent intercourse behavior that was found for these participants is due to their positive identification with other unmarried young women who are also sexually active.

In summary, only a longitudinal study that first measures exposure to 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom and then measures young women’s sexual behavior can rule out the possibility of selective exposure as an alternative explanation to the interpretation of the results presented heretofore. Nevertheless, the findings of the present study provide at least some encouragement for the view that parent–child sexual communication can buffer youth from the scripts for risky sexual behavior often promoted on television. It must be remembered that experimental research has already demonstrated that open family communication moderates the influence that sexual television has on adolescents’ attitudes (Bryant and Rockwell 1994).

Future research can expand upon the present study in several additional ways. First, female high school students should be studied. The majority of young mothers on 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom are in high school. Life-stage congruity between viewers and 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom mothers could enhance psychological identification and perceptions of similarity. Higher levels of identification and perceived similarity are theorized to enhance the behavioral effects of exposure to sexual media (Wright 2011). Additionally, although from an educational attainment and public health perspective both collegiate and high school pregnancy are undesirable, collegiate females may be more prepared to be mothers than females in high school. Consequently, although research on social influences that may encourage pregnancy-risk behavior among collegiate females is important, such research is also important among high school students.

Second, assessments of students’ reasons for engaging in or avoiding intercourse should be taken. For example, future studies could assess whether female students’ openness to pregnancy covaries with their exposure to 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, and whether communication about sex with fathers during females’ developmental years moderates this association. Third, future studies should assess whether female viewers with different sexual socialization histories actually do interpret the messages about teen motherhood sent by 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom in discrepant ways. Fourth, future studies should assess the specific messages about sex sent by fathers. The finding that father-child sexual communication is designed to inhibit children’s sexual behavior and/or risky sexual behavior is consistent (Wright 2009b). The interaction between father sexual communication and exposure to 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom on females’ recent intercourse behavior and the marginal main effect of father sexual communication on females’ recent intercourse behavior found in the present study are indicative of this messaging orientation. However, fathers do communicate with their children about a variety of topics (e.g., sexual values, safe sex, abstinence—Wright 2009b), and it would be valuable to explore at a more nuanced level how specific topical discussions interact with sexual media exposure to predict youths’ sexual behavior.

Fifth, more ethnically diverse samples should be employed. Specifically, future studies should sample larger numbers of Black participants, as some evidence suggests that White youth (the predominate ethnicity represented in the present study) and Black youth (only 1.9 % of the present sample) respond differently to sexual risk and responsibility messages on television (Collins et al. 2004). Finally, future studies should explore associations between young males’ exposure to 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom and pregnancy-risk behavior. This study focused on females for two reasons. First, 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom are presented from the perspective of the mothers not the fathers. Second, pregnancy prevention/safe sex precautions among youth usually fall to females (Wright et al., in press). However, 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom do focus somewhat on fathers and young males are, of course, responsible for and affected by their female partners’ pregnancy.

Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2012