Reality TV programmes often get a bad rap when it comes to setting an example for young people. While shows like Love Island and Geordie Shore are sometimes accused of promoting an unhealthy obsession with image and popularity, a new study by Nottingham University says that this kind of TV show might also be promoting bad habits like smoking and drinking to an unacceptable extent.
The study looked at Love Island, The only Way is Essex, Geordie Shore, Made in Chelsea and Celebrity Big Brother to analyse the frequency that drinking and smoking occurred during 112 episodes. Shockingly, alcohol appeared in all 112 episodes that the researchers looked at, with Love Island representing the biggest share of these.
Tobacco featured in 18% of the episodes with the majority of these being in Celebrity Big Brother. The makers of Love Island stopped featuring smoking after a public backlash in 2018 generated negative press. The research indicates that while smoking is seen as increasingly less socially acceptable, drinking, often to excess, is presented as a social norm.
The sheer volume of so called ‘reality’ TV shows means that many young people are getting a daily diet of TV that not only normalises but glamourises smoking and drinking. Although it’s not just teens who tune into the shows, it’s well documented that young people are much more susceptible to media influences. These TV programmes tap into an aspirational desire among young people for social approval from their peers, which is often measured by popularity and attention.
The shows depict a lifestyle that’s often far from reality for the majority of people, with an underlying message that success is less about hard work and achievements than gaining maximum exposure. Although the onscreen action, or lack of it, can provide compulsive viewing for many people, there’s a much more complex objective at work than simple viewing figures.
These shows aren’t just entertainment in the traditional sense, they’re also prime advertising vehicles, providing lucrative product placement deals for producers. The episodes analysed for the study featured no less than 40 alcohol brands, but there’s also promotional opportunities for everything from clothes and makeup to food and cigarettes. This means that reality TV represents big money for production companies and their investors.
There’s also a more insidious reason that alcohol and cigarettes feature so much in these shows. Alcohol, in particular, lowers social inhibitions, which can inevitably make for more sensational viewing – and when people drink, they often smoke. Although some shows have come under pressure to limit the amount of alcohol consumption they feature, this could mean editing out prime viewing content.
There’s growing evidence to suggest that the levels of manipulation used to instigate certain behaviours can have a negative impact on both a show’s participants and its viewers. While it might make for higher viewing figures, production methods that encourage high levels of alcohol consumption inevitably raise questions about social responsibility and morality.
The reality talk show Jeremy Kyle recently came to an end when it was revealed that the production team wasn’t demonstrating proper levels of care towards guests. Interviewees were often subjected to harsh ridicule from the host after opening up about personal issues on air. In the aftermath of one of the guest’s suicide, it was revealed that the participants were supplied with unlimited amounts of alcohol backstage, while levels of aftercare where minimal, raising suggestions of exploitation.
There’s growing evidence to suggest that exposure to reality TV programmes isn’t particularly healthy for either the shows’ participants or their viewers. The heavy emphasis on attaining social acceptance through image indirectly promotes behaviours such as cosmetic surgery and exhibitionism fuelled by alcohol. This can worsen people’s insecurities that they don’t measure up, leading to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
Although it’s difficult to measure the psychological impact that these shows have in isolation, the fact that two former Love Island contestants took their own lives in 2018 and 2019 would indicate some level of negativity. While it’s extreme outcomes like suicide that inevitably attract media attention, much of the commonplace fallout in the form of social alienation will go unreported. Although reality TV programmes show little sign of flagging in popularity, it may be that both participants and the impressionable young people who follow their every move are being set up for a fall.
While reality TV and social media often emphasises social conformity in order to achieve success, there’s growing evidence to suggest that following suggested modes of behaviour stifles personal and professional growth. As workplaces turn to innovators, creatives and big thinkers for new direction, your unique approach can be your ticket to success.
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