Is Reality TV Messing with Your Head?

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“If you look at me, you think I’m, like, stuck-up. But yet, like, I save animals,” Snooki whines on the reality TV show Jersey Shore. Meanwhile, her pal Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino openly mocks her: “She looks like a spray-painted Chihuahua,” he says. Switch the channel and you might find an episode of Small Town Security in which Joan, one of the owners of the security firm, laughs so hard at a co-worker farting that she pees on herself—making her and her co-workers laugh even harder. Then the camera zooms in on her wet pants, for all of America to see.

Insults, temper tantrums, selfishness, gross behavior, and plain old stupidity—these are the main ingredients for most of today’s reality TV shows. Guess who’s watching them? Millions of young people just like you. According to Entertainment Weekly, three of the most popular shows teens watch are Jersey Shore, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and Teen Mom. “Teens love them for the same reasons adults do—they’re outrageous and fun to watch,” says Sierra Filucci, senior editor of TV and DVD reviews at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit advocacy group for media literacy. But are these shows just mindless entertainment, like so much of the media we consume, or is there a dark side to these views of reality?

Idiotic or Influential?

There seems to be an even greater draw than just the amusement factor of reality television, says cultural critic and family therapist Lori Gottlieb. “Teens are naturally curious about other people’s lives and want to know how their own lives compare,” she says. And they often look to reality shows for answers. Young people also tend to watch shows with older characters to learn what it will be like when they get to that age, according to David Bickham, Ph.D., staff scientist at the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston.

So what happens when excessive alcohol consumption, teen pregnancy, and high levels of drama are presented as “reality”—worthy of being on TV, no less? Well, things get dicey. A recent study from the Girl Scout Research Institute showed that regular reality TV viewers don’t just accept but also expect a lot of drama, aggression, and bullying in their everyday lives, which just goes to show that these shows are creating a new sense of what’s “normal” for teens.

But does that mean you’ll blindly copy whatever irresponsible antics Kim, Kourtney, and company get into? Experts give you more credit than that. “You’re not going to go out and get drunk or pregnant just because you see Snooki do it,” Bickham says. “The influence is more subtle.” When you see bad behavior on TV 24/7 under the guise of “reality,” you might start to believe that these characters aren’t exaggerating. Experts fear that a steady diet of watching people behaving badly increases our tolerance for rudeness—or even violence.

The Girl Scout study found that 73 percent of people surveyed thought that reality TV shows “make people think that fighting is a normal part of a romantic relationship,” and 70 percent said that reality TV “makes people think it’s OK to treat others badly.” But the degree of influence these shows have might depend on how you feel about yourself, not just how you feel about the characters you see on TV. “If a teen is struggling with self-esteem issues, he might adopt some of these attention-getting behaviors to get recognition,” says Gottlieb. “If, however, you’re confident in yourself and have positive sources of attention, such as sports or theater or good friends, you’ll probably see the Kardashians or The Situation as ridiculous, not role models.”

Smoke and Mirrors

Given the impact these shows may be having on our worldview, you can’t help but wonder: How realistic are these so-called reality shows? The production process starts the same way it does for most shows and movies—the wannabe stars audition. There are even acting schools devoted to helping “normal” people get on TV. At the New York Reality TV School, founder Robert Galinsky explains ways to impress producers: Be vulnerable, emotional, and not very good at keeping a secret. And even these qualities aren’t always enough to make a successful reality star. “There is so much competition for ratings that producers have to up the outrageousness factor to attract viewers,” says Filucci. So what you see may not have happened as naturally as you’re led to believe. Fights are often scripted, encouraged by producers or created by cast members trying to make themselves stand out from the crowd. “But a smart viewer can spot contrived situations,” Filucci points out. “Teens don’t want to be manipulated.”

Fourteen-year-old Shelby Poole, of Laguna Niguel, California, agrees. “I think the characters’ attitudes and behaviors on these shows are all very staged for TV, so I try to pick up on that,” she says.

Make Me a Star

As stupid and mean as some TV personalities seem, there’s no question that acting that way can pay off. Many former reality stars have become worldwide celebrities, with endorsement deals, spin-offs, and appearance fees. Take, for example, DJ Pauly D of Jersey Shore. Before his binge drinking and “smooshing” made him a star on MTV, he was making just a few hundred dollars per gig. Now, though, he earns up to $40,000 (almost as much as the average kindergarten teacher makes in a year) at each event. According to an anlysis by The Wall Street Journal, reality stars were featured on about 40 percent of the covers of the six major celebrity weekly magazines in 2011. And why not? These shows feature more outrageous personalities and nonstop drama than fictional shows like Modern Family. Hey, drama sells magazines.

But it’s important for teens to think about success in terms that aren’t limited to magazine covers and fleeting fame, says Gottlieb. “Reality-show success is short-lived, and it’s just based on creating conflict for others to watch,” she says. Among the once-thriving reality stars who have since dealt with bankruptcy and other financial woes are Jon Gosselin of Jon & Kate Plus 8, Danielle Staub of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, and Heidi Pratt of The Hills. “Think about things that can bring you long-term success—changing something in your community, succeeding in a sport, being a good artist or musician, starting a business,” Gottlieb says. Will these things bring you fame? They may not. But fame doesn’t necessarily equal happiness.

So although it can be entertaining to watch fights, breakups, and hysterical crying for hours on end, try to remember that producers place “real people” in fake situations. “The truth is, everyone is getting paid almost nothing, and they’re mistreated, given lots of alcohol so they’ll act stupid, deprived of sleep, and pitted against each other,” says Galinsky. In fact, we reached out to MTV, E!, and Bravo, three of the biggest reality TV networks, to see if they feel responsible for splashing poor role models and fake conflicts all over TV for teens to watch. Their very real response? No comment.

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