After a long day, the prospect of slumping in front of the television and zoning out during a reality show is more than welcoming. However, few avid TV-watchers have failed to notice that the reality genre has utterly taken over the airwaves; every station has some “unscripted” series, following one family or another as it navigates the world. There are reality shows for those looking for star-packed drama, there are reality shows for sports fans hoping for some offseason info, and there are reality shows for kids and teens who have nothing better to do than watch hour after mindless hour of people making poor decisions. Not many people think twice about switching on a reality show and collapsing on the couch ― but maybe they should.
Research suggests that reality television has more influence on reality than most people expect. From the impact reality TV has on culture to the way it modifies young people’s brains, the reality genre might actually be dangerous to America’s future.
Reality television sells because it is more exciting than actual reality. While viewers spend night after night in front of the tube, on TV reality stars go wild at clubs and have frenzied house parties; they travel the world and experience exclusive delights; they enjoy tantalizingly luxurious lifestyles, and fans can quickly grow jealous. The contrast between real life and reality TV life is stark, and many viewers choose to pursue the idealistic way of life they see on the screen.
An extreme example of this are the notorious Hollywood Hills robberies, as depicted in the movie “The Bling Ring.” Seeking ceaseless excitement, a group of kids raided the homes of several celebrities, attempting to fuel the expensive life of parties and travel. Of course, the kids were arrested for their crimes, but they demonstrate how reality TV sets high standards for life that few people can attain.
From the “Survivor” series which depicts strategic quarrels to “Jersey Shore” which showcases the antagonism of Italian-Americans, nearly every reality show contains some amount of drama. Stars gossip and spread rumors, and many even get into verbal and physical fights with friends and family. Often, that drama even continues off-screen, with social media wars ― like the recent one between Vivica Fox and 50 Cent ― which viewers also eagerly eat up.
Unfortunately, researchers believe that frequent exposure to such hostile behavior has increased rates of aggression off-screen. One study found that 78 percent of reality fans believe gossiping and spiteful conduct is normal between girls, compared to roughly 50 percent of non-watchers with the same views. Another study discovered that watching a reality show with aggressive undertones directly increases a person’s drive to do others harm.
Some experts believe that reality television has the potential to build up self-esteem; they believe that viewers tune into such programs to watch on-screen participants become humiliated, and shows end with audiences feeling superior. Indeed, some studies do support these claims, finding reality television fans more self-assured than their peers.
However, more widespread among reality TV fans is an emphasis on beauty. More than 72 percent of reality television watchers spend “a lot” of time perfecting their appearance, compared to a measly 42 percent of non-fans. Shows allow stars to primp and preen before going on camera, and their resulting flawless hair and make-up is presenting viewers with a false portrayal of average. Worse, some shows like “Extreme Makeover” and “The Biggest Loser” depict unrealistic changes to physical appearance, encouraging fans to undergo drastic procedures to attain the desired look. Rates of cosmetic surgery are rising, and many blame reality TV for this dangerous trend.
A leading theory regarding why reality television has gained such immense popularity is that the genre largely relies on regular people. Unlike the stage and the silver screen, which pull talent from trained and experienced artists, reality TV selects participants from the masses, which means everyone has the opportunity to become a reality star.
Unfortunately, the accessibility of fame has altered the way many people plan for the future. In one U.K. survey, 10 percent of British teens attested to willingly abandoning their educations for the chance at a spot on a reality television show. They believed that stardom offered more money and success than anything they could achieve at school. Yet, reality fame is fleeting, and nearly all reality celebrities quickly end up back in obscurity ― fighting the rest of their lives for another chance at recognition.