People Love Reality TV: Does It Affect How We Treat Each Other?

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


Children and Snooki

With all of the emotional and moral conflicts reality shows portray, many people have wondered if it should viewed by a younger audience, especially since many shows contradict what parents tell their kids is right and wrong. “It puts parents in a bad situation,” says Cantor. “Children are much more naive about the world, and they are much more likely to accept what they see on TV as real. A lot of times there are areas that reality television deals with issues children have never been exposed to.”

Parents can say certain activities are wrong, but many young teens and children watch shows that say and do the exact opposite. Many shows paint an unrealistic picture about what life is — Win a beauty pageant at age 5? Live on an island and vote people off? — and this can be difficult for many children to process.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Public Education, “Extensive research evidence indicates that media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed.”

Children might want to emulate these people, who are rewarded with fame and fortune for acting callous and shallow. And children might believe these are “regular people,” even though they’re not. “The kinds of people who apply for reality TV tend not to be introverted, they tend not to be fearful or insecure,” says Levak. “So you’re getting a skewed distribution to begin with.”

And viewers at home — both children and adults — don’t realize that the experience of being on television changes the way that these reality stars behave. “For some people, by giving them a way to become famous for 15 minutes, it changes their life very positively,” says Levak. “But for other people, the quickness of fame and the quickness of losing it is a huge deal. And then for a smaller group of people the setbacks of public humiliation can leave some scar tissue.”

In August 2011, Russell Armstrong, a husband on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” committed suicide. The psychological push and pull of the public can leave some contestants devastated, as can the airing of their troubled lives — or the editing of the show to make someone or something look a certain way to fill the storyline.

For example, Anthony Calandra, star of the NBC show “Average Joe: Hawaii,” where regular guys try to win over the heart of a beauty queen, was happy by the way he was portrayed, but says that some of the cast members were really misrepresented. “Most of that misrepresentation was manifested through clever editing. The fact is they have enough footage and dialogue of everyone, and through editing they can make you fill whatever role they want you to fill.”

Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Viewers know that car crashes, murders, and street fights on TV and in film are staged. But do they understand that reality TV is as well? “Hundreds of hours of footage are shot to make a single hour of reality television, and the final cut ultimately is very similar in its narrative structure to scripted television.

“There is a beginning, middle, and end, with character development, goals, conflict, and resolution,” says J. Ryan Stradal, a writer for such TV shows as “Deadliest Catch” and “Ice Road Truckers,” in his article, “Unscripted Does Not Mean Unwritten,” for the Writers Guild of America. “If you’ve ever been pulled into watching a reality series, it’s for the same reasons you get invested in scripted TV: sympathetic characters, interesting settings, and a sequence of events that provokes, edifies, and/or entertains.”

And reality shows have altered the definition of what is entertaining. Behavior and activities that were once viewed as highly inappropriate are now watched, discussed, and enjoyed by millions of people every day. And though not all reality shows are the proverbial stain on the blanket of moral values, many should be watched with caution, as they are new building blocks for what our society views as acceptable behavior.


“It’s not a simple equation,” says Levak. “Not all reality TV is bad; many genres could be developed and could be very good. Are currently many shows bad? Yes. Do they negatively affect viewers? Absolutely.” Levak sees a positive possibility for the future of reality-based shows. “Realty TV has just started and could be an amazing genre and very healthy and positive to watch if we could model good behavior. We could have programs about acts of kindness and self-sacrifice — then the genre would not be bad.”

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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