Even if we don’t admit it, sometimes all you want to do after a long day is indulge in a little mindless entertainment. For a lot of us, that means watching marriages breakdown and contestants push themselves for cash, love or both.
Many of us love reality TV. Channel Nine’s program Married at First Sight was the highest rating show in Australia in 2018. And the remaining spots in the top three were also filled by reality TV programs.
But is indulging in reality TV a cause for concern? Yes, and no.
One study tasked adolescent and teenage girls with detailing their TV viewing habits and then rating their self-esteem, personal values and relationships. It found that while viewing reality TV correlated with increased self-esteem and positive relationship expectations, it also resulted in an increased focus on appearance and a willingness to compromise personal values for fame.
Dubbed the ‘Love Island Effect’, young-adult female viewers of the reality show Love Island feel more self-conscious after watching an episode; consider going on a diet; and even undergoing cosmetic surgery.
What’s more, studies suggest that reality TV viewing can increase aggression. A sample was tested using a controlled experiment where viewers were subjected to shows that contained ‘relational aggression’ (like the bullying, exclusion and manipulation contained in Jersey Shore and Real Housewives). They were then tested in a speed-typing activity that saw losers blasted with sirens administered by the winner. The winner could control the duration and level of the siren. Viewers of the reality shows were more likely to administer louder and longer sirens.
Health care professionals also believe that hospital-based reality TV programs give people false expectations and desensitise them to serious issues. They may also be more inclined to head straight to the Emergency Room and bypass their GP in non-emergencies. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some hospital reality TV offered viewers a real-life glimpse into how overworked emergency services are. Having been the ‘fly on the wall’, viewers may also be able to better judge the seriousness of their own medical situations.
We know that reality TV is manufactured and that it’s far more fiction than fact. But it is worth thinking about the subtle ways in which reality TV influences our brain and attitudes to social situations – especially in the case of impressionable adolescent minds.