Student View

Teens on TV vs. IRL

Before you binge the latest season of your favorite show, check out the most common ways TV misrepresents teens—and why you shouldn’t feel bad if your reality doesn’t match.

Teens on television are super-relatable. They go to school, they fight with their siblings, they have supernatural powers that help them kill demons and solve murders . . . OK, maybe not totally relatable.

In fact, when you think about it, even when you take out the crime-fighting vampires and other supernatural characters, teens on TV can seem a lot more like fantasy than reality. They always look perfect, their lives are nonstop drama, and school, when they bother to show up, lasts about three minutes. Of course, that’s part of the appeal of TV: Sometimes you want to escape the regularly scheduled programming of school, friends, and family, and immerse yourself in a story far more glamorous and dramatic than your real life.

The problem is that when you see the characters on TV as models for what your life should be like, you can experience serious FOMO when it doesn’t measure up. “Seeing people who are supposed to be your age who have perfect relationships and are really attractive can make you think you’re doing something wrong,” says Simon, a 15-year-old from Washington, D.C.

It’s important to remember that the hard-partying, acne-free teens you see on TV are fictional characters created by adults, says Kelly Mendoza of Common Sense Media, an organization that monitors media for kids. “These shows are designed for entertainment, not to be documentaries on teen life,” she says. “You should be asking yourself, are these images realistic? Am I unfairly comparing myself to characters on a show?”

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with bingeing an entire season of Outer Banks. But you’ll enjoy it a lot more if you remind yourself no teen’s life really looks like that. Here’s what our real teen advisers say are the most common clichés. How many can you spot on your favorite shows?

On TV: There's no homework

On most shows, no one seems to study or be particularly worried about grades, and they spend most of their time at school hanging out at their lockers. “All the stress on TV is about popularity or romance,” says Eliot, 14, from Portland, Maine. “None of the stress is about school itself.”

IRL: Homework and class take up most of your time. According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, the average teenager spends three hours a night on homework—which doesn’t leave much time for wildly active social lives. Speaking of time, teens spend it in class, not chatting in the hallway. “Your friends usually don’t have classes right by yours, especially in huge high schools,” says Kristina, 17, from Illinois.

Bottom Line: On TV, classes and homework tend to take away from the scripted drama, so we don’t see much of them. But in reality, you’re not a freak or a geek if you make your education a priority—that’s what school is for!

On TV: The main characters have perfect skin and never wear the same outfit twice

Teens on shows like Gossip Girl and Riverdale never seem to have a zit, braces, or a bad hair day, and they dress like they’re going to a job interview or a club, not to class. Additionally, they often have the sort of bodies that exist only on, well, TV. “I feel like many teen shows push unrealistic beauty standards that do get to me. I start worrying, ‘Am I too flabby? Why isn’t my skin clear?,’” says Simon.

IRL: Acne, braces, and bad hair days are the norm. Remember that the actors who play these characters are usually in their 20s—even they probably had zits when they were actual teens. Also keep in mind that they aren’t actually paying for those fancy clothes they wear in every episode—not to mention the team of hair stylists, makeup artists, and personal trainers whose jobs are to make the actors look Hollywood-perfect for every scene.

Bottom Line:  No one in real life expects you to look like an actor on TV—even the actors don’t look so flawless off-screen!

On TV: Everyone has a romantic interest and the drama never stops

“The twists and turns and all the romance are totally over the top,” says Eliot. Even when their lives are not in danger, characters’ relationships with friends and romantic interests are turbulent and intense.

IRL: Real teens do experience heartbreak, family issues, and conflicts with friends just like teens on TV, but not to nearly the same degree. Keep in mind that real relationships­—both friendships and the romantic kind—are not about nonstop intrigue and betrayals. If you spend more time fighting with a friend or romantic interest than having fun, that’s a good sign you’re not getting much out of the relationship.

Bottom Line: No need to despair if you don’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend—plenty of teens don’t date until after high school. And friends and romantic partners should help you feel good about yourself, not like you’re living a real-life soap opera.

On TV: Teens tend to be straight and white

While some shows are starting to feature more actors of color, as well as gay, lesbian, and transgender characters, the main characters on many shows are White and heterosexual.

IRL: Teens are diverse. According to U.S. Census data, at least 50 percent of people ages 10 to 19 in the U.S. identify as non-White, and nearly 12 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 identify as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender, queer), according to nationwide surveys from the CDC. The good news is, newer shows like Never Have I Ever, On My Block, Ginny & Georgia, and Love, Victor feature diverse casts, including non-White and LGBTQ main characters.

Bottom Line:  TV is slowly catching up to what the real world looks like. If you don’t see yourself represented on the small screen, that doesn’t mean there aren’t more people like you out there.

On TV: The party never stops

Every weekend, the entire student body shows up for huge blowouts at the mansions of students whose parents are conveniently out of town.

IRL: Parties, when they happen, tend to be small (even more so now, thanks to Covid-19). “There are occasional parties during holidays, but these days, people really stick with their closest friend groups,” Kristina says. “I don’t think it’s even possible to text your whole school, ‘Party at Hanna’s place tonight at 8:00!!’” Not to mention how mad most parents would be if a bunch of teens trashed their house—even if they don’t live in a mansion.

Bottom Line: Don’t feel bad if your Friday nights are more Netflix and chill than school-wide rager. Those wild parties are more fiction than fact—not to mention extremely unsafe as long as we have to worry about Covid-19.

Source: University of Washington

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