What impact do documentaries have on today’s youth? Do kids even know what a documentary is? These questions came to mind when I recently saw that the Sheffield Doc/Fest was asking for applicants for its Youth Jury for the UK event in June. Initially, I was skeptical. But, when you think about it, teens do indeed have a fair amount of exposure to documentary filmmaking. But, mostly, they call it something else: reality television.

Heart of the Game movie posterOutside of Disney’s nature documentaries or the concert extravaganzas that appeal to Justin Bieber fans, I could only think of a few theatrical documentaries that really tried to appeal directly to teens. One was about a girls’ basketball team, called Heart of the Game, and the highest profile one was called, appropriately enough, American Teen. Distributor Paramount Vantage put a lot of money into marketing Teen as a cool, young film to see, but it fell flat at the box office in 2008. (I wonder how many young folks have seen Hoop Dreams, that great doc about two teen inner-city basketball players; not enough, I bet.)

One of the best exposures kids get to docs is through programs like the one at Sheffield. The Tribeca Film Festival has its own youth screening series as well as a fellowship program; and POV has its own Project VoiceScape, which helps kids make their own nonfiction films. But I bet the best point of contact is through resourceful teachers. I know that a lot of teachers use documentaries — a friend of mine said that Eyes on the Prize is an invaluable asset — as instrumental aids in teaching certain subjects.

So, there is certainly a healthy swath of American youth exposed to nonfiction filmmaking. But, still, it’s hard to deny that reality TV has the most impact on them. And what’s it saying?

Teen Mom image from showI recently toured a New York City high school for a profile I was writing about a television executive; the executive went from classroom to classroom asking the kids what kind of TV shows they liked to watch. A lot of reality shows came up, like American Idol, but Teen Mom came up more than any other.

Now, Teen Mom has been discussed recently as a stellar example of harsh, honest realism in contrast to the hoopla over Skins, MTV’s scripted show that lauds bacchanalia and wayward erections. David Carr of The New York Times went so far as to suggest in his disapproving analysis of Skins that Teen Mom is the best antidote to Skins.

But how does he know that? I’ve watched Teen Mom and been impressed by its technical achievements, and I’ve been moved and saddened by the hard life these young kids are getting into when they themselves have kids. But, during that recent trip to the school, when the kids talked about the show, I got the impression that they were more excited about a show about people their age than they were about learning any life lessons about the dangers of teen pregnancy. The kids talked about the show like it was cool, kind of like how a horror movie can be thrilling.

I came away with the impression that Teen Mom might have a more complex impact on its young viewers than I’d thought: by putting teen moms on the screen, it’s rewarding them, and effectively celebrating their pain. And what kid in this mediated era doesn’t want to have his or her personal pain celebrated with millions of Americans?

And so, while some adults do a great job curating nonfiction films for the benefit of our youth in schools and at festivals, there may be a far more pervasive and insidious nonfiction force at work. I’d love to know if any teachers out there talk with their students about Teen Mom — I hope they do.

Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup. You can also follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen