MTV’s popular “Teen Mom,” which documents the lives of teenage mothers, doesn’t just serve as a warning about the repercussions of getting pregnant in high school. It also contains some unexpected financial lessons.
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On a recent episode, aspiring model Farrah (mother to baby Sophia) lists her car for sale online. She receives an offer of $8,000, which includes $3,000 for shipping. The buyer sends Farrah a check and tells her to wire part of it to an account for shipping. Farrah does so, only to discover that the check is fake – after $3,000 of her own money has already been cashed.
This type of wire fraud scheme has been around for years – and that might have contributed to Farrah’s vulnerability to it, says Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and author of coauthor of Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens, and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail. While many teens and 20-somethings are savvy about online dangers, the non-technical nature of wire fraud might have left her less guarded, says Yarrow.
“I think Gen Y’s optimistic nature leaves them more vulnerable to scams. Compared with other generations, Gen Y feels like things will turn out well and imagines the best. This makes them less vigilant in general,” says Yarrow. Plus, she adds, stress weakens our ability to think rationally, and as a teen mom living on her own for the first time in her life, Farrah is certainly experiencing a lot of stress.
So why didn’t MTV producers or cameramen stop Farrah from falling victim? The scam was so obvious that anyone with a few more years of experience in the real world likely could have spotted it and prevented it from happening. Instead, the adults in the room watched behind cameras as she lost her money.
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An MTV spokeswoman says that’s precisely the point of the show. In a E-mailed statement, the spokeswoman said, "Teen Mom is an unvarnished look at the challenges teenage parents face. The docu-series captures their real lives, the choices they make and the consequences of those choices. By telling these stories, the series is raising consciousness about issues and situations young people face and, hopefully, educating our audience."
In fact, falling victim to a financial scam isn’t the only harm MTV allows to come to its reality television stars. Cameramen stood by as Farrah’s baby fell off the bed when Farrah was in the other room, leading to screaming but, fortunately, no apparent injury. They also watched as Farrah’s daughter accidentally turned hot water on herself in the sink, and when Farrah appeared to forget that she left her daughter outside her apartment door, asleep in her car seat. (MTV declined to say if there was a safety line they would not allow their youngest stars to cross. If a baby was left alone in a bath tub, would the camera crew intervene? Let’s hope.)
Farrah’s not the only teen mom on the show dealing with financial issues. Amber, who wants to get her GED, appears to be constantly struggling to pay for rent and diapers. Maci, who lives with her parents, took her baby’s father to court to get him to provide child support. It’s not clear to what extent the teen moms are being compensated for appearing on the show, and MTV declined to specify. Meanwhile, the stars of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” now earn a reported $30,000 per episode. Based on how much they struggle with money, the teen moms appear to receive far less, if anything.
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In an interview with MTV after the show, Farrah explains that she has never had to be in charge of her finances before. “My Dad and my Mom used to pay for everything, and I used to be like, ‘Who cares about money?’” she says. Now, she says, “I nitpick everything now because if I’m paying for it, I want the most out of it.” That means shopping sales and using coupons at the grocery store.
As for her scam incident, Farrah says that in retrospect, she’s glad to have learned the lesson, even though it was a hard one. And perhaps viewers can also learn from her mistake.
Kimberly Palmer is the author of Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back, which will be published in October by Ten Speed Press.