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May 21, 2019 | by  | in Features |
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Storytime: Angst, Agony, and Adorable Babies in Teen Mom YouTube

A perky young woman waves to the camera. She has long shiny hair—maybe there is a hint of exhaustion in her eyes, but who can tell? The refrain comes: “Hi guys, and welcome back to my channel!” She tells us her name, and the name of her child; perhaps the child is just out of frame, occasionally making noises so we know that she’s there. This woman is a teen mum YouTuber.

I discovered Teen Mom YouTube by merit of YouTube’s algorithm a few months ago, and spent several beautiful summer days inside, watching the lives of other people on my screen. There’s a lot of typical teenager stuff on there: trips to the mall in the form of ‘travel vlogs’, Q and A’s with questions about managing school with social life, Get Ready With Me (GRWM) videos populated with makeup tips. But this content is interspersed with footage of using a breast pump between classes, babies’ first words, videos about body confidence after giving birth, and unboxing merchandise from various brands.

One day, I was watching the videos when a revelation struck me: I only had a few weeks to become pregnant if I wanted to be a teen mum. Logically speaking, I don’t want to be a teen mum; I’m not financially, emotionally, or relationally set up for a child in any way. But babies are cute! And on the internet, it looks so good.

If I had a baby, I would be inspired: I could write about motherhood instead of my clichéd angsts and curiosities. More than that, I would have a purpose. Being a mother is straightforward: Each day, you are responsible for your child’s survival. If I had a baby, then I could call that enough—instead of stressing about grades and work, and, most frightening of all, destiny.

Teen Mom internet content is perhaps geared at people like me. People who are wondering about the might-have-been’s of a life with a child. I talked to Gemma Rose McKinstry, a YouTuber who makes videos about, (among other things), her experience as a teen mother. She’s a student at Victoria University, and according to her, “[the audience is] interested in this alternative life that some people the exact same age are going through… Say you want a baby, but you’re like ‘I would never have a baby at this age, it’s crazy, you can’t do that’. [Then] there are literally other people out there that are living this life that you can’t believe.”

The ‘teen’ aspect of Teen Mom YouTube is consistently emphasised. For one thing, the title of videos almost always includes the words ‘Teen Mom’, highlighting the age of their creators. ‘TEEN MOM CONTROVERSIAL PARENTING TAG’ or ‘My 16 and Pregnant story | Teen Mom vlogs’ abound. There are thousands of videos containing “and pregnant” in the title, modelled after the MTV show Sixteen and Pregnant. After “20 and pregnant”, the ages die out.

The emphasis on age is inherently dramatic, and thumbnails illustrate this. Gemma’s labour story video contains the words “I ALMOST DIED”, with horror movie-style red lettering over her face; other teen mom videos may be a Q and A, but the thumbnail will offer another incentive to click: “+hot new bikinis” in pastel letters. This strategy is clearly working with the YouTube algorithms; teen mom content has found hundreds of thousands of viewers.

They attract a diverse audience. You are just as likely to find comments reading “she’s hottest mom I’ve ever seen” as you are to read a comment saying “your a very strong and amazing person and ur videos always make my day.” Other people will post comments saying “I want a baby!!!” or “that’s the cutest baby omg”. The best comment, spotted under a labour vlog: “I’m gay af and don’t need a reminder but this [labour] story is THE BEST reminder to use contraception.”

Gemma McKinstry has 14,000 subscribers. Her first video, about finding out that she was five months pregnant, has over 600,000 views. However, even bigger YouTubers—most of whom, as the ‘teen mom’ term indicates, are based in the US—may have hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and brand partnerships.

Estimators online calculate that over USD$1000 could be earned for videos like Gemma’s labour story. Brand partnerships could bring more, especially in conjunction with the free stuff that comes with such deals. But though Gemma has been approached by lots of brands, she’s “not interested” in brands “telling [her] to do this and this and this.” She’s tried to monetise her channel (i.e. to get ad revenue), but it consistently gets demonetised because she uses copyrighted music. “I’d rather put out quality content with music that I like, than content that I put up just for money.”

Gemma says that she started YouTubing to explain her situation, and help other people in similar situations feel less alone. “I got so tired of telling the story over and over again. I was like, fuck it, I’m just going to make a video.”

Gemma didn’t expect the video to be a hit. After about a month, the views started stacking up, and strangers in similar situations started messaging her, telling her how alone they felt. Gemma reckons that the raw honesty of that first video drew an audience; when she talks about how afraid and confused she felt, as well as considering an abortion, many people felt less alone.

The massive audience pull has spilled into Gemma’s personal, ‘real’ life, too. When out on the town in her home city, Gemma has been recognised. “I’d go out with my friends and they’d have to fend off all these drunk girls that would come up to me and be like ‘Gemma, Gemma!’”

Kaitlin Drislane is another teen mom YouTuber. She lives in New Hampshire in the US, and got pregnant when she was 19. Her videos haven’t found the kind of reach that Gemma, or any of the other big teen mom vloggers have; they’re mostly for her family and friends. She started posting videos “because I wanted to see if there were any other young moms… in my similar situation. I wanted to see if my words could help someone.”

Though Kaitlin’s videos don’t yet have a big reach, she says that the YouTube influencer economy has contributed to her life. “My son slept in the snuggie […] a lady on YouTube had recommended, and I watched many videos about it before I purchased it.”

All this baby content can create what YouTube commenters call ‘baby fever’. Within Teen Mom YouTube, there is a video that many mothers feel compelled to post once they reach a certain clout: the ‘Reasons Not to Be a Teen Parent’ video. The reasons cited seem obvious: babies are expensive, derail pre-conceived life plans, and often mean that you have to be dependent on others.

Teen Mom YouTube makes teen mums more visible—the good and beautiful parts, mostly, but also the bad and the ugly. New Zealand has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the OECD, at 22 births per 1000 women aged 15–19. This number isn’t big enough for teen parents to find each other, however—especially as parenthood is isolating and frightening, and classes and books on are geared towards people with their own homes and partners. YouTube offers an alternative to the despair and the narrative that demonises teen parenthood.

Gemma felt alone when she found that she was pregnant. She didn’t know other teen mothers. She wasn’t ready. She felt invisible when trapped at home, and hyper-visible outside, pregnant or with her baby, provoking questions. She watched YouTube to see how other people figured it out.

Anita Brady, a Media Studies lecturer at VUW who specialises in gender and sexuality, says that “The opportunity to see someone who is going through what you’re going through, doing it in a way that looks like they’re happy and successful, but also the communities that develop underneath that, can be a really important source of support for people. And an important source of information.”

The fact remains, though, that most teen mom YouTubers are conventionally attractive young women who usually have some family support for their child. Comments often acknowledge “hotness” or sex appeal, and videos lean into this. Many teen mom YouTubers have brand partnerships with bikini or lingerie companies. Brady characterises this as an example of how phenomena are often only relevant for certain demographics. “It’s setting up a model of what you can be or how you can succeed… [one that includes] attractiveness and sexuality, which is not accessible for a lot of people.” Many teen mothers don’t have time to post videos. Other don’t have the money for video equipment (although many videos are just filmed on phones), or relatives who can look after children so that they have silence and time to edit, upload, and promote on social media.

And then, of course, there are legions of teen mothers for whom pregnancy is not an aberration: beyond the developed world, teen parenthood is normal. According to the CIA World Factbook, there are over 30 countries where the average age of first pregnancy is under 20.  

Many of the commenters on teen mom videos are other teen parents, asking specific questions, sharing their own stories, or just feeling seen. Some of these people have their own channels, and others don’t. It’s a community. Some ask questions about the clothes the YouTuber is wearing, or baby buggies. There’s space on YouTube for talk about topics that teen mothers—and their young, female audience—may not have information for elsewhere.

One of these taboo issues, perhaps a little ironically, is abortion. Several teen mom YouTubers have said, explicitly, that they’re pro-choice. Others don’t agree, but opinions are heard with respect. This is a sharp contrast to the vitriol which characterises discussion of abortion in most spaces.

Vitriol still exists, of course; Gemma received a lot of negative comments in her initial pregnancy video for mentioning that she would have aborted the baby if she had known of her pregnancy earlier. “It’s a really hard topic to talk about, it’s a battle that society is going to be facing forever,” she says, but she doesn’t regret being honest. The discussion of abortion is part of her story. Although she’s stopped reading the comments, she doesn’t let them affect her actions, because “fuck what other people think”.

Other teen mothers talk about abusive exes (one particularly vivid story that has stuck with me, was of how a ‘baby daddy’ manipulated birth control so that his girlfriend would stay with him) and how they escaped difficult discussions. There are lots of videos about how to tell parents that you’re pregnant, or how parents reacted.

Teen Mom YouTube also has space for discussion around vaccines (in the interest of protecting their children, most mothers are overwhelmingly for it), co-sleeping, STIs, drug addictions, and mental health. Anita Brady characterises this as an example of how the internet can be “a positive force”. “I guess lots of these issues are ones that are replicated in relation to so many other topics across the media ideas and conversations that [teenagers] may not have other forums for.”

In every Teen Mom video, there is the underlying implication of the most taboo topic of all: sex. Babies are the result of sex. Teen pregnancy is often attached to a certain degree of moral panic about children having sex with other children and then having children of their own. Gemma is still decidedly sex positive. “If you want to have sex, just fucking go for it,” she tells me, but she has been accused (on- and offline) of sleeping around. After saying this, she adds a caveat: “if you feel comfortable, safe, and ready to explore your body.”

Gemma thinks that there isn’t enough knowledge and language for young people to talk about how sex can go wrong. “I just wish they’d educate girls more about what to do with sex when it goes wrong, relationships when it goes wrong,” she tells me. She wants to change that with her channel; she’s started to talk more about mental health (in the hopes of eventually making it a place for her psychology career), offering language and frameworks, and—maybe most significantly of all—an example of the consequences of sex.

Discussing complex topics online can lead to intrusive personal questions. “Where do you live?” is a common one. “Can we see pics of you with a bubba belly?” or “Did you shave down there before you gave birth?” I found all of these comments beneath Gemma’s videos. Gemma gets a lot of questions, particularly, about her daughter’s father, about whom she has remained circumspect. “Online there were a lot of questions that people keep asking [and] I’ve never said much… about who her father is.”

YouTube commenters have also often, ironically, told Gemma that she shouldn’t be putting so much of her life out there. She has privated a number of her videos, particularly the ones that have received a lot of negative feedback; a video about her moving to Australia (away from her daughter) received a lot of hate, so much that Gemma stopped posting for a while.

Teen Mom YouTube can be seen as the successor to shows like Teen Mom and Sixteen and Pregnant; like these shows, it harvests the inherent human interest of children having children, the heightened drama of reproduction combined with school or university, transient relationships, budding independence, and parenthood. But it also offers conversation in a way that television doesn’t: YouTube offers teen mothers a space to control their narrative, even to turn it into a career.

I’ve run out of time to be a teen mother, and not having to think about a baby on top of everything else is definitely a blessing. But teen mom YouTube is still out there, a reminder of who I could be with a baby. These gorgeous young women still live on my computer, talking about things that matter, not as glossy TV shows or demoralising statistics—but as people, finding their own way.


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