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Reality shows I'd like to see

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  January 16, 2014 08:15 AM

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Thumbnail image for pregnant teen.jpgIt sounds so wonderful, having a baby. You have a beautiful child who is all yours, who loves you best of all, who everyone dotes on. You get to be a parent and do everything perfectly, better than your parents and people you know.

And then you have a baby, and find that you are sleep-deprived, never get a moment to yourself, can't do any of the activities you used to do and spend most of your time feeling incompetent. Oh--and babies aren't always cute. They scream and poop and rarely do what you want them to do at any given moment.

Any parent can relate to this--and therefore understand how it might indeed be possible that the MTV show "16 and Pregnant" has decreased teen birth rates. According to a study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, teen birth rates dropped a lot when the show started in 2009. The authors of the study said that the show is responsible for a 5.7 percent drop in teen births. 

There's nothing like actual reality, actual facts, to pop a fantasy bubble--especially for teens. Let's face it, they know better than all of us. If a teen has an idea, it's really hard to shake that idea. I know this from experience both as a parent and a pediatrician.

So...I think we should run with this concept. How about these reality shows?

A show about young adults living on a minimum wage job. Not only would this be good for our politicians and policy-makers to watch (our minimum wage is disgraceful), it might help motivate youth to stay in school--and go to college--so that they could get a job that pays a bit more. So many teens I talk to think that school isn't so necessary--they will just get a job and everything will be fine. Yeah, right.

A show about people trying to make it in professional sports. For a bunch of teen boys I've seen in clinic recently, Plan A is playing professional baseball or basketball. School is secondary. I'm sure they are talented (actually, I'm not positive they are, but they certainly believe themselves to be), but the odds just really aren't in their favor. I think it might help to watch what life is like for people who try...maybe I could get them to at least come up with a Plan B.

Just think about it. There are so many possibilities.

There are three other shows that would be unethical to do as long-term reality shows, but maybe if they featured one story each episode it wouldn't be unethical--and it could be really effective:
  • A show about kids who smoke a lot of weed, drink, or use other substances. I have various patients who experiment with this stuff, thinking that they can handle it and that it's not such a big deal. I think it would be really useful for them to see how lives can unravel.
  • A show about teens who have experienced unhealthy dating relationships. I once saw a survivor of domestic violence talk to a group of high school students, and they were clearly mesmerized--and visibly shaken--by her compelling story of how what seemed like a perfect relationship with the perfect guy went terribly wrong. If we could get more teens to hear these stories, we could help them see the signs, and ask for help, before it gets dangerous.
  • A show about victims of bullying. Lots of teens think of bullying as drama, no big deal, and think that the victim should just, well, ignore it or get over it. Maybe if they could really see and understand what it feels like to be bullied, they would think twice before they made that mean offhand comment. And maybe they would be more willing to stand up to bullies.
I also desperately wish there was a way to do a time-lapse reality show about how it really can get better for teens who are different--because of sexual orientation, or cultural differences, or simply because for whatever reason they don't fit in with the mainstream popular kids. Those of us who have known those kids or been those kids know that high school does eventually end and that when you find your tribe and your place it's a whole different world--but it is really, really hard to make suffering teens believe this, especially when that different and better world may be years away.

Sometimes it takes living something, or getting a good look at someone else living it, to really understand. Media in general, and social media in particular, can reach so many people and help them understand things they didn't before. 

I'm guessing that the creators of reality shows aren't as interested in helping people as they are in making money--but that's okay, because as "16 and Pregnant" demonstrated, you can do both. Here's hoping that the producer of the next reality show keeps that in mind.





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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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