To Shame or Not to Shame—NYC’s New Teen Pregnancy Prevention Campaign

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By Nazmim Bhuiya, MPH

Doleful, doe-eyed babies plastered throughout subways and bus stops reading “I’m as twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen”, “Dad, you’ll be paying to support me for the next 20 years”, “Honestly Mom…chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?”

These are the descriptions of New York City’s (NYC’s) recently launched ad campaign targeting teen pregnacy—a campaign that has sparked much discussion and controversy. The situations highlighted in the ads depict the imminent consequences of teen pregnancy “through the lens of the children.” In a city that is requiring schools to provide comprehensive sexual health education and is increasing access to birth control, I was disheartened to see that a shaming message focusing solely on the negative consequences of teen parenthood was used as an educational tool for adolescents. Teen mothers have also been dismayed by these messages. NPR recently interviewed Gloria Malone, a former teen mom who now runs the blog Teen Mom NYC. Gloria said these ads “brought back all of the insults and stereotypes and stigmas that I had to fight against in high school and everywhere else . . . And the shame and the stigma is what kept me in unhealthy situations.” Shameful, fear-inducing, negative messaging is not an effective strategy in changing behavior, and moreover, this strategy may inadvertently have adverse effects, as research on anti-smoking/anti-drinking ads for teens has illustrated.

Having worked in teen pregnancy prevention for several years now, I have seen the many layers and complexities of this public health issue. Factors contributing to particular behaviors (e.g. early sexual initiation) that may lead to teen pregnancy are multi-faceted and go beyond the individual level to the socio-ecological determinants of health. Many young people who become teen parents grow up in surroundings entrenched in poverty, violence, and a myriad of other risk factors. Some view pregnancy as the only path they are destined to take because they do not see any hope for a promising road ahead. For others, pregnancy is a way of having a family of their own and being loved— something they may not have experienced.

Shameful messaging may help to avert some pregnancies, but it still does not respond to the larger issues at play. Efforts need to focus on creating a supportive environment for young people. Systems need to be in place to ensure they have the resources they need whether they decide to have a child or not. Young people need to be provided with tools to make healthy decisions and with opportunities that will empower them, cultivate their development, and reinforce their hopes. There needs to be a shift in our overall approach in addressing teen pregnancy to truly mitigate this issue.

Nazmim Bhuiya, MPH is a Research Associate II at the Institute for Community Health.

1) Agrawal N, Duhachek, A. Emotional Compatibility and the Effectiveness of Antidrinking Messages: A Defensive Processing Perspective on Shame and Guilt. Journal of Marketing Research. 2010; 47(2):263-273.
2) Henriksen L, Dauphinee AL, Wang Y, Fortmann SP. Industry sponsored anti-smoking ads and adolescent reactance: test of a boomerang effect. Tob Control. 2006;15(1):13-8.
3) Snyder, LB, Blood, DJ. Caution: Alcohol advertising and the Surgeon General’s alcohol warnings may have adverse effects on young adults. Journal of Applied Communication Research 1992; 20(1): 37-53.
4) Wolburg, JM. The need for new anti-smoking advertising strategies that do not provoke smoker defiance. Journal of Consumer Marketing. 2004; 21(3): 173-174.
5) New York Ads Resurrect Stereotypes For Former Teen Mom [transcript]. Weekend Edition Sunday. National Public Radio. March 24, 2013.

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