Does reality TV distort how young viewers perceive life?

To follow is an excerpt of the CQ Researcher issue on "Reality TV" by Maryann Haggerty, August 24, 2010

Where some people see reality television as one more hazard for young people growing up today, Robert Thompson, a professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, sees it as a possible career path.

As he gauges what a lifetime of watching such programs has meant for his students, he says, “The biggest effect it's had is that some of them consider it now one of the options they may have if they want to become famous. I have had a lot of students who have aspired to try out for ‘American Idol,’ some of whom have actually done it. ‘The Real World’ comes to campuses for auditions on a regular basis.”

As far as other “big behavioral kinds of things,” he says, “obviously, the culture we consume comes in an aggregate and helps to shape who we are. The books that we read, the movies that we watch and all the rest of it accrues and adds up together to shape the contents of our minds.” But if a kid watches a stunt on “Jackass” and imitates it, “and it gets reported all over the news, and it essentially says reality TV is killing a generation of our kids? I think that is really, really overstated.

“Most of my students that I talk to about reality TV watch it very much in the same mode that I as a 50-year-old adult do, which is oftentimes very much tongue in cheek.”

Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for the Parents Television Council, an advocacy group that frequently criticizes TV vulgarity, separates reality programming into two categories. A lot of it can be family-friendly, she says — for instance, “American Idol” or “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”

“And then there's everything else.”

She says, “What we have found is that they do contain higher levels of profanity and foul language. They also tend to include more aggression.”

While not much research has been done specifically on how reality TV affects children, Henson says it's possible to extrapolate from generalized research on how media affects behavior. “And what the vast body of research indicates is that kids who are exposed to higher levels of violence tend to behave more violently,” she says. “Kids who are exposed to higher levels of sex in media tend to become sexually active earlier in life than peers with less exposure.

“Because kids are seeing people close to their own age behaving a certain way on these reality programs, they tend to accept that that's normative behavior.”

Unlike scripted television — think, for instance, of cop shows like the popular “CSIS” — most reality programs stop short of portraying physical violence. Instead, they contain a lot of what academics call relational aggression. “Such behavior involves direct harm to relationships or the social environment and includes gossiping, spreading rumors, social exclusion and relational manipulation,” a group of researchers wrote recently in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. They also found that reality shows contain much higher levels of verbal aggression — insults, name calling — than scripted shows. [Footnote 13]

The researchers evaluated and compared a selection of scripted and unscripted shows, counting not only the frequency of various types of aggression but also whether it was justified or rewarded. “Such aggression often helps the contestant to ‘get ahead’ in the program, for example, by defaming another contestant's reputation or by turning contestants against each other,” they wrote. “However, the extremely high levels of relational aggression in reality programs are somewhat alarming, given the realistic portrayal of the aggression.”

How does that affect young people? Lead researcher Sarah M. Coyne cautioned in an e-mail interview that she hadn't personally studied the long-term effects of reality viewing. “However, watching a heavy diet of aggression (which reality TV is high on) can have a long-term effect on both aggressive attitudes and behavior,” commented Coyne, an assistant professor at the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.

Others caution that reality shows can provide warped role models. “On reality TV, they can get away with a little more distortion than a scripted television show would,” says Letsome, the NOW vice president. “There's glamorization of drunkenness and casual sex. It reinforces the most immature actions of our entire society.”

When high-school students in particular see such behavior held out on television as the norm, it distorts their perceptions of what's acceptable. “It sends a message to the next generation that this is what I have to do, this is what is expected of me when I get to college or get to the business world,” she says.

Among college students, though, the effects of reality television are less than pessimists fear, says Gomery, who teaches history of media at the University of Maryland. Sure, students follow “American Idol,” but they care more about social media. “Reality TV is an adult form,” he says. “College students are much more interested in other things…. If you want large audiences, you can't rely on college students. Reality TV really works because it's one of the few genres that people born between 1945 and 1963, the Baby Boomers, like. You can't get those kinds of numbers without them.”

The Issues:
* Has reality TV caused a coarsening of society?
* Does reality TV perpetuate harmful racial, gender and other stereotypes?
* Is reality TV harmless entertainment or a cultural threat?

For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Reality TV" [subscription required] or purchase the PDF

[13]Sarah M. Coyne, Simon L. Robinson and David A. Nelson, “Does Reality Backbite? Physical, Verbal and Relational Aggression in Reality Television Programs,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 54:2, 282–298 .