It’s time for honesty hour: I love reality TV. I spend so much time watching shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, The Real Housewives (of any state or county), and basically anything Bravo or E! or MTV will give me. But why are we so drawn in by these shows, and more importantly is it healthy?
First of all, we love reality TV because we love to fantasize about the possibility of becoming famous in an instant. Reality TV serves us a cast of “regular” people who seem to have similar experiences as we do. If these people can become famous, maybe, if we play our cards right, we can too. On more of a psychology note, Leon Festinger may use his social comparison theory saying, “We watch because it makes us feel better about ourselves.” This serves as a valid hypothesis to this quandary. The null would say that watching reality TV does nothing to us or for us where the alternative would say that watching reality TV does something to us or for us.
There is not a sufficient number of studies conducted on the subject to bring us to a solid conclusion, but they’re on the right track. A 2006 study looked at reality shows that had a medical or health basis. They found that it did stir up healthier behavior among viewers but some viewers more emphasis was placed on superficiality. Over time, that may affect a viewer’s body image and self-esteem.
Dr. Brad Gorham, chair of the Comm Department at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University says, “All TV shows, not just reality shows, help construct scenarios that demonstrate how some behaviors will be rewarded or punished. The concern is that frequent viewers of these shows will learn these behaviors, see them as desirable and then model them in the actual real world.” He adds that reality shows sell, so networks keep them on the air regardless of their effect on viewers.
Sherri Williams, an instructor at Syracuse University, believes that casting for reality shows is based on stereotypes. She also says that the actions of those on the show are portrayed, but the consequences happen behind the scenes, where viewers are left in the dark, not teaching them how the behavior shown in the programs leads to bad outcomes. Williams says that there are several programs on stations such as BET and OWN that squash stereotypes and teach more positive behavior, a step in the right direction.
Jamie Riccio, a Syracuse grad student preformed her own little experiment looking into the effect reality TV has on America’s youth. She began conducting focus groups with interviews and surveys in 2010. She has found that reality television shows create more dramatic behaviors in young adults. Riccio says that it was an interesting thing to look at and she believes it will have to be studied in depth in the future.
NPR sat down with Michigan psychology student Brain Gibson to talk about what he found. He studied how aggressive people became after watching shows like Jersey Shore and Real Housewives. His control group included shows with more positive messages such as Little People Big World and some crime dramas. After watching the shows they played a game against another person in the study and the winner was able to blast the loser with noise. Gibson and his partners looked at different variables such as how long the winner wanted to blast the loser. Those who watched shows such as Jersey Shore wanted to blast the loser with louder and longer blasts than those who watched the crime dramas.
While there isn’t sufficient evidence at this point as to how exactly these shows are affecting us, there are definitely some common figures all centered on behavior. I would think that there are more variables in this situation such as age, gender, and interest in the show they are watching that can also play a part in this situation. Based on the findings of the studies, I would say that the correlation that aggressive shows cause bad behaviors is stronger than bad behaviors cause one to watch aggressive shows, but that cannot be ruled out. These studies have certainly found some startling things, but personally I don’t think I will ever shake my love for reality TV.