ABC Tackles Teen Pregnancy

ONE LIFE TO LIVE’s Jessica, GENERAL HOSPITAL’s Lulu and, recently, OLTL’s Starr all got pregnant in their teens. For these stories, ABC Daytime worked closely with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in Washington, D.C. We recently spoke to Amy Kramer, director of Entertainment Media and Audience Strategy for the campaign, and Marisa Nightingale, senior advisor to the campaign, about the history of this collaboration. First, some sobering facts…Amy Kramer: Three out of 10 girls in this country will get pregnant at least once before they turn 20.

Marisa Nightingale: And that is after having a very substantial decline in teen pregnancy over the last decade or so.

Soap Opera Weekly: Why is that?

Nightingale: It all comes down to sex without any protection. Teenagers either have to be firmly committed to abstaining from sex altogether until they are out of high school, or more ready and prepared, or use protection every single time. [For] any teen who’s not firmly in one of those camps, it’s pretty likely [she is] going to get pregnant, because you have an 85 percent chance of pregnancy within a year if you’re having sex and not using any [protection]. Why is it that some teens protect themselves or wait and others don’t? Fifty percent don’t even think about what a pregnancy might mean to their lives. Many of them think, “It’s not going to happen to me” or, like [OLTL’s] Starr, sometimes they’re just not really thinking. They get caught up in the moment. Sex isn’t something they had planned to do and they’re not prepared.

Weekly: How did the collaboration with OLTL begin?

Nightingale: I’ve had the great pleasure of working with ABC Daytime for over a decade. Our relationship began in 1997; ABC Daytime [was] looking for something interesting to incorporate into a storyline about Jessica Buchanan, who was 16. We helped them tell the story with expertise and facts. [Jessica got pregnant after having sex for the first time with Will Rappaport.] Then, when the whole storyline wrapped up, we got together and produced a 12-minute educational video called JESSICA’S STORY. It went out to 5,000 schools, youth groups, health departments, you name it. We worked a little bit with GH in 2006 on Lulu Spencer’s story.Weekly: Yes — she had an abortion.

Nightingale: With Lulu’s story, we ended up doing a character blog together. That inspired the idea for Kristen Alderson‘s (Starr) blog this year. ABC Daytime has been the model for what we hope other people in the media would do. We always point people to ONE LIFE TO LIVE as a great model for what the media can do to help and still entertain. These storylines have been immensely popular, because they’ve told them in such compelling, thought-provoking ways.

Kramer: Because it’s a soap opera, the producers have the luxury of telling it in real time. Starr was pregnant for 37 weeks on ONE LIFE [in 2008]. The audience saw her dealing with so many of the things that girls in her situation deal with — finding out she’s pregnant, telling the first friend, trying to keep it from her parents, [deciding] how she and her boyfriend were going to deal with it, how it will impact their relationship, and the way she felt when her body started changing. If it’s just an hour-long drama, a lot of the nuances are left out.

Nightingale: And remember, this is also entertainment. And they have struck such a fine balance between providing very helpful messages but not having the audience feel like the show is an afterschool special. If you’re going to deal with this issue for 37 weeks, you’ve got to keep it entertaining.

Kramer: To have someone close to you go through a pregnancy, whether it’s a friend or a family member or a television character who’s in your home every single day, is really, really powerful. Kristen had hundreds of comments on the blog during the pregnancy — people sharing their own stories about their own relationships with their boyfriends or their parents, or [writing] how they felt about it. We’ve been talking to teenagers for a long time, and at least half of them tell us that they’ve never even thought about how a pregnancy would affect them. When you can personalize it and make it real to them the way that Starr’s pregnancy did, and the way that ONE LIFE has done, it’s enormously helpful and powerful.

Nightingale: This show and this storyline actually sparked a lot of conversation between parents and teens that needed to happen, but often doesn’t happen because parents don’t know where to start. And we know from our research that teens say parents are the No. 1 influence when it comes to decisions about sex; they want to hear more from their parents. Unfortunately, parents don’t realize how powerful they are, and they think that peers and television are more important. This storyline, in particular, gave parents exactly the kind of conversation starter they needed.

Kramer: This is probably a good time to also give props to the character of Blair, Starr’s mother [Kassie DePaiva]. Once Blair knew about it, she was really an outstanding parental role model. She was present for her daughter, and was caring and so “just in charge.” A girl who’s going through this really needs her mom, and Blair was wonderful, open and supportive. They [went] to doctor’s appointments together. Blair talked to Starr about how she felt and how her body was changing. It was a wonderful example of a mother/daughter relationship.

Nightingale: It probably helped a lot of parents who were watching get some ideas and feel reinforced that [their] role as the parent of a teenager is to be parental, not necessarily always just a buddy. One other very powerful element to this story was Cole [Brandon Buddy]. He played a really significant role talking about his feelings about the pregnancy. ONE LIFE showed that even though Starr and Cole had a very strong and loving relationship, a pregnancy can [put] stress [on] the relationship and cause it to dissolve. You don’t see in a lot of television or movies what all of this means to the guy.

Weekly: Are you working with any other television programs at the moment?

Kramer: We have been working with, and continue to work with, THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER. It comes back [this month] for its second season. We do blog posts on the ABC Family Web site, which is incredibly well-trafficked. We also do discussion guides on the Web site that can be printed out. At the end of each episode, there’s a PSA after the credits from [Shailene Woodley], the actress who plays Amy Juergens (the pregnant 15-year-old on that show), where she says, “You know, the first time you talk to your parents about sex shouldn’t be when there’s a pregnancy.” It gives our Web address as a place to go for more information, so we’ve been very, very happy to support that show and get people talking about it. Again, [it has] millions of viewers who are thinking about this issue, who might not be thinking about it without this prompting.

Kramer gave Weekly these links for parents and teens. Check them out:

10 tips for parents

What teens want parents to know

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