Reality television is a new craze taking the world by storm. Its ability to draw high viewership and its low production costs make it the go to show for a network to make money, so naturally, there are many out there. My first experience with reality television was when I was very young. My sisters and mother were enamored with MTV classics, such as The Real World and Run’s House. I did not think much of them at the time, but jumping ahead a few years, I noticed a strange resurgence of the unscripted drama. The first show that made me question this mode of entertainment was The Jersey Shore. A bunch of extremely hate-able people making bad life choices, is this what entertainment has become? Whether a group of dysfunctional pseudo-celebrities or a collection of make-up clad toddlers, these shows have become engrained in popular culture. Therein lies the problem. Watching these shows or not only good for your mental health, but they may be able to permeate your life more than you might think. I propose that unscripted, documentary like television shows are associated with adverse effects on the mental well-being, perception of reality, and general disposition of the viewer.
Reality television is a huge risk for young people, as it presents a fictional reality that some children may try to emulate. Psychiatrist Holly Peak sums up the main negatives of reality television viewing into four points. The first is a focus on physical beauty and sex appeal. Her example is, “Keeping Up with the Kardashians features the life of a family that spends a great deal of time and money on appearance…Their Instagram pages, often followed by young fans of the show, are full of “selfies,” bikini and modeling photos. Photos that feature their “ordinary” everyday lives are highly sexualized, including the pages of the youngest teenage members of the family. This practice perpetuates the notion that “real” people gain popularity and happiness by focusing on their appearance…” (Peak). The second being materialism and excessive partying. She points to The Jersey Shore as an example, “The cast of The Jersey Shore spends an entire summer binge drinking to excess, participating in risky sexual behavior, engaging in physical altercations, and even being arrested. Despite their obvious poor behavior and decision-making, their popularity continues to grow.” (Peak). The third major problem with reality programs is the rampant bullying. She raises an interesting point that, “As we try to discourage bullying, gossiping and other forms of interpersonal aggression between young girls, it’s unfortunate that reality shows often feature adults behaving in exactly this manner…” (Peak). Her final point is that these shows are not showing the real-world success of the stars, and it sets a bad example for young people. Reality television shows are a mine field of bad influence, and it is not just children at risk. People of all ages are susceptible to the negative fantasies that are presented as reality.
These problems effect many television viewers, but reality television programs are very popular among college students and they are just as capable of harming them as well. A study was conducted that interviewed college students on their television watching habits and there were some interesting occurrences. “Initially, participants denied watching much [reality television]; in fact, [reality television] was rarely mentioned when participants were asked to describe the type of television shows that they typically watched… However, over the course of the focus group discussions, it was evident that participants watched (or were at least familiar with) more [reality television] shows than first indicated… at least 25 different [reality television] shows were discussed throughout the focus groups as shows that were watched on a regular basis.” (Lundy 213). I bring this up because it shows that reality television may be more popular than even the viewer believes. I do not believe that the participants were lying about their viewing habits, but they just did not realize how far reality TV has permeated mainstream culture. One participant even commented that ‘‘I didn’t think I watched this much or knew this much about reality television but apparently, I was wrong.’’ (Lundy 213). The fact that even people who think they are beyond the grasp of reality television shows could be feeling their effects is extremely worrying to me. There is one specific suggested effect on college students specifically due to reality television. A study performed at Brooklyn College found a correlation between Reality television viewership and “one night stands.” “College students were surveyed about their reality television watching habits and also their connection and interest with media characters. Those who watched reality television sexual relationship shows as compared to those who did not had greater odds to engage in one-night stands.” (Fogel 328). Some people may feel that there is nothing inherently wrong with “one-night stands” but, morals aside, it cannot be overlooked at a possible effect of reality television and indulging in the act could be dangerous to one’s health. Another side note of this article was a survey that asked about perceived realism. “…increased perceived realism associated with having one-night stands. It is reported that those who perceive reality television as more real and also have a greater interest for the reality television content are associated with using reality television for entertainment, relaxation, social interaction, and companionship.” (Fogel 329). Not only are people who perceive these shows more likely to watch reality television programs, but they also are more likely to emulate that behavior.
It is known that these shows are propagating a lifestyle that is very unrealistic, and that people are watching reality programming, maybe even more than they think. The next question is, why? Why are people tuning in to see someone have fun or make poor life choices? Lundy’s study found that most participants use it as an escape, but many others enjoy the voyeuristic qualities. Sometimes people want to watch other people make mistakes to ease their own worries. Another study used a different method of survey and found some slightly more worrying results. They had people fill out a survey asking them about the importance of 16 basic needs, one of these being status (see chart below). They found “The more status-oriented people are, the more likely they are to view reality television and report pleasure and enjoyment… people who are motivated by status have an above-average need to feel self-important. Reality television may gratify this psychological need in two ways. One possibility is that viewers feel they are more important (have higher status) than the ordinary people portrayed on reality television shows… Further, the message of reality television- that millions of people are interested in watching real life experiences of ordinary people – that ordinary people are important. Ordinary people can watch the shows, see people like themselves, and fantasize that they could gain celebrity status by being on television.” (Riess 373). Now, these results seem unhealthy. By thinking that the people on these shows are not characterized versions of themselves, they admit not having a warped view of reality. The viewer believing that the people on reality programs are like them would make them want to emulate the stars of the show to gain the high status that the viewer desires. The following chart shows the mean scores of how many people from each motive group enjoyed watching 0, 1, or 2 reality television shows.
Now that it’s clear why people watch reality TV, it needs to be clear what type of person looks to these shows. There was a study done that looked at a personality inventory of reality television viewers and non-viewers. “Results from a survey of 592 undergraduates showed that extroversion negatively predicted reality television exposure, whereas neuroticism was not associated with it.’ (Aubrey 80). With less extroverted viewers, one can assume that primarily the viewers are introverted. It may be that introverts are watching as a proxy for real social interaction. This is alluded to in Aubrey’s article, “…instrumental (social interaction, information, and arousal) … positively predicted exposure to reality television.” (Aubrey 80). This can be unhealthy for such people because social interaction is important to psychological wellbeing. Not only is it not good for mental health, but it attributes to the problem of a twisted worldview due to the false realty advertised in these shows.
MTV is a major player in this reality television renaissance. They were one of the first networks to popularize partying, drinking, and casual sex on unscripted drama programs. The promotion of these risk factors is evident in the 2015 study, “‘‘Let’s Get This Party Started!’’: An Analysis of Health Risk Behavior on MTV Reality Television Shows”. The article found that, “Results demonstrated that drinking and casual sexual behaviors were pervasive among cast members. Smoking and more intense sexual behaviors were also present, but to a smaller degree.” (Flynn 1382). This study was conducted from 2004 to 2011, and they considered the popularity of these shows. Now these behaviors are not necessarily morally wrong for people of age, but these shows are very popular among adolescent viewers. This is the so-called reality that we are subjecting to young viewers who might think this is how everyone lives their life. This study showed that, “More cast members were shown while drinking at least once than not at all.” (Flynn 1385). Thinking back to my early years, this would make me think that choosing not to drink would not be a viable option when I become an adult, but I found the opposite to be true, no one cares if you drink or not. The new generation should not think the situations in shows like The Jersey Shore are how things happen in real life.
A 2013 study looked at the physical and social aggression by adolescents after watch particularly aggressive reality television programs. They surveyed young students on their amount of media consumption, focusing on reality television specifically. They found, as expected, “…significant associations emerged, with more frequent viewing of reality TV linking with higher levels of social aggression.” (Ward 380). This mirrors a past psychological study that basically determined that when children see aggression they act on it. If that is true, would these children think reality programming is realistic, well, “[our hypothesis] predicted that greater consumption of reality programming would be associated with attributing more realism to reality programs. We tested this notion by conducting zero-order correlations between the two reality programming variables and the perceived realism variable. Findings confirmed our expectations. Higher levels of perceived realism were associated with more frequent consumption of reality programming, in general…” (Ward 381). This is strong evidence for reality programming having negative effects on young people. Not only is reality television negatively affecting youth, but it seems that people of all ages are more likely to watch unscripted dramas when they see it as being real.
This may seem grim, but there is a glimmer of hope to hold on to. The chart below shows cable television news viewership over the past few years. I realize news is a little specific, but it still shows a downward trend in television viewership. Less people watching television, the less people who are watching reality television programs. Television can be a wonderful thing, but like with everything, moderation is key.
Reality television may be the new darling of pop culture, but it might not be the harmless bit of “boob tube” we once thought it to be. The evidence is stacking up against it, and there comes a time when the people need to take a stand against a popular trend. Remember disco? Remember how everyone decided that we have had enough and killed disco forever? Maybe that should be how reality television is handled. Now, if you enjoy these programs and do not want to follow the advice of me and many academics, then just keep in mind that it is all fake. All those faithful reality television viewers must come to understand that their life will never work at like those on the television, and they should just enjoy it as a work of fiction like any other popular television program.