People who admit to watching MTV reality shows 16 and Pregnant or the Teen Mom series usually justify the habit as their occasional fix of mindless television.
But a new US study reveals teenagers who view the programs regularly are more likely than their peers to believe young mothers have an enviable quality of life, a high income, and involved fathers for their babies.
"Heavy viewers of teen mum reality programs were more likely to think that teen mums have a lot of time to themselves, can easily find child care so that they can go to work or school and can complete high school than were lighter viewers of such shows," authors of the research, which was a collaboration between Indiana University and University of Utah, wrote. "Our data calls into question the content of teen mum reality programming."
Lead author Assistant Professor Nicole Martins and her colleagues asked the 185 American high school students, aged between 14 and 18, about their perceptions of TV and teen pregnancy. However they were unable to ask the surveyed group about sexual behaviour.
"The fact that teens in the study seemed to think that being a teen parent was easy might increase the likelihood that they'll engage in unsafe sexual practices," Martins said. "Because that's not a real consequence to them."
The findings are at odds with a statement released by the makers of 16 and Pregnant and the Teen Mom series in 2011 which said the shows were "the best public service campaigns to prevent teen pregnancy."
"We believe our audience is smart enough to view Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant as the shows were intended - as cautionary tales about the consequences of unprotected sex, and the reality of becoming a parent too early", Senior Vice President of MTV series development Lauren Doglan said at the time.
MTV recently announced that Teen Mom 3 will not be renewed for next season. However, the more successful sequel, Teen Mom 2, will return with a fifth season. Both programs spun off from the earlier, 16 and Pregnant and are among the network's highest rating shows.
Martins believes part of the problem might not be the content of the shows themselves, but the celebrity status achieved by some of the shows stars who regularly end up on tabloid magazine covers in the US.
"Maybe that's what's drawing viewers' attention: the fact that one of the teen moms, Farrah Abraham, repeatedly is on the cover of Us Weekly for all the plastic surgery that she's had. Well, a teen mum living in this country can't afford that; most unmarried teen mothers are on welfare," she said.
She also notes teenagers are less likely to understand reality television is not always an accurate portrayal of true life.
"As you study reality television with younger populations, you're going to find that younger children are going to have a harder time understanding that this is something that is scripted, edited and put together in a purposeful way to create a narrative and a drama," Martins said. "Indeed, there are some individuals who believe that this reality TV show is like real life. For them, they were the most likely ones to hold unrealistic perception about teen parenthood."
Even though girls surveyed were more likely to report watching teen pregnancy shows, researchers found boys who did watch the programs came away with similar beliefs about young parenthood as their female peers.
"This study makes a valuable contribution because it links exposure to specific content - teen mum reality programming - to teens' perceptions of teen motherhood," the authors concluded. "While it would be inappropriate to suggest that viewing these programs is the cause of teen pregnancy, one might consider it a contributing factor."