The New York City Human Resources Administration recently launched “Think Being a Teen Parent Won’t Cost You?”, a teen pregnancy prevention campaign aimed to curb the rates of teen pregnancy in New York City. My initial reaction to the ad campaign, was “Wasn’t there a new report announced last month that teen pregnancy rates in New York City has fallen considerably? Are these ads in connection with that, in order to decrease the rates even more? Also, why is this campaign developed by the Human Resources Administration and not, say, the Department of Health, especially given the difficulties many households in New York City have in even accessing resources from the HRA?”
According to the New York City Office of the Mayor, more than 20,000 teens in New York City become pregnant each year. While this sounds like a lot, the New York City Department of Health recently released data showing that teen pregnancy rates have steadily declined by 27% over the last 10 years. A key reason? Access to condoms, birth control, and emergency contraception. The city has recognized the steep cost of gaining access to birth control, and by increasing access to birth control in schools (and instituting a mandated comprehensive sex education curriculum) teens are more likely to utilize birth control options. Another key reason for the decline of the teen pregnancy rate in New York City: Support from New York City parents.
So, why does “Think Being a Teen Parent Won’t Cost You?” have the potential to impede the efforts the city has made with reducing teen pregnancy rates?
Shock value, at a cost: The teen pregnancy rate in Milwaukee has dropped for the fifth straight year in a row, due to a 3 year teen pregnancy prevention initiative using the Carrera model, but it seems way more comprehensive compared to New York City’s campaign. While providing “shock value” can work, it comes at a cost: The New York City campaign doesn’t appear (for now) to empower teens to make healthier and risk-reducing decisions. Even this recent North Carolina social marketing campaign looks more comprehensive compared to what’s happening with this New York City campaign. Also, similar shock advertising was done in Georgia around child obesity, and it quickly was met with backlash due to the potential shame young people can face for being overweight.
The messaging is problematic and stigmatizing: One of the ads in this campaign states: “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.” Another one states: “If you finish high school, get a job, and get married before having children, you have a 98% chance of not being in poverty.” While I appreciate the use of “adding the facts”, this campaign focuses primarily on two assumptions: First, becoming pregnant in your teen years means your life is over. To the contrary, there are countless examples of young women who became teen parents but had the determination to finish high school, become college educated, and became able to contribute financially to their households. Secondly, teen pregnancy and single motherhood are somehow viewed as bigger contributors to societal poverty. There are many factors to poverty, especially with the financial constraints the United States has been in for several years now. One can have a high school diploma, a college education, and be married, and still be faced with poverty.
This smells like abstinence-only-until-marriage: Having a child within the context of a heterosexual marriage will be the answer to one’s problems, right? Well, the United States have spent over $1.5 billion in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, yet this country still has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates globally. In response to the ad shown above, while it is ideal for a child to grow up in a two-parent household, is it really a guarantee that a woman (regardless of her age) won’t end up as a single parent?
Support is needed both ways: It makes sense to stop something before it has the potential to happen. However, we can’t just focus entirely on preventing teen pregnancy without creating dialogue around and providing resources for teens who are already parents. There is nothing wrong with getting teens to think about what they could face if they were to become a young parent, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of shaming, blaming and stigmatizing their peers who have chosen to parent. Shock value and scare tactics can capture ones attention, but providing funding to services and organizations that provide solid comprehensive sex education that empowers teens to make healthier lifestyle choices, as well as providing teen parents with the support and resources needed to navigate young parenthood is a better approach.