Reality Shows are Bad…and Good

Reality TV watching in adolescents associated with both positive and negative behaviors

(RxWiki News) Reality programming makes up more than half of all television shows today. Reality shows have been blamed for teenagers’ poor self-image and disconnect with the real world.  

Teenagers watch reality shows for the entertainment value and due to their shorter duration. Plus, these shows often depict issues teenagers can relate to – relationships, break-ups, gossip and rejection.

How much does reality TV really influence adolescent behavior?

Not only are there both positive and negative effects, teenagers also might not be embracing negative behaviors as much as previously believed, says a new study.

"Turn off the TV - get some exercise."

This study was conducted by Christopher J. Ferguson, PhD, at Texas A&M International University, Laredo, TX, along with collaborators from Girl Scout Research Institute, New York, NY, to examine the effects of media, especially reality television, on teen behavior.

The researchers used survey results from 1141 preteen and adolescent girls aged 11-17 years with a mean age of 14.3 years. Participants were recruited based on an online survey and the group matched the US population of adolescents with respect to geography, ethnicity, and other characteristics.

The participants were of various ethnicities including white (68.4 percent), African American (14 percent) and Hispanic (13.2 percent) with some overlap since participants were allowed to choose multiple races.

The mean number of hours of television watched per week was 12.4 hours for the group and included different types of programming including talent competition shows, dating shows, real-life programming, and makeover shows.

All the participants answered survey questions regarding their reality television viewing, personality, self-esteem, focus on appearance, desire for fame and relational aggression which the survey associated with issues such as gossiping and being mean to others. The participants were asked to rate all these attributes on different scales.

Viewing reality television viewing was associated with higher self-esteem and an expectation of respect while dating. Most girls who watched reality programming called themselves mature, smart, funny, and a good influence. They also were likely to desire leadership roles and act as role models more often than girls who did not watch reality TV.

On the flip side, reality programming was also related to more attention to physical appearance with 72% of reality TV watchers saying they spend a lot of time on their appearance, compared with 42% of those who didn’t watch reality shows.

Further, reality television viewing did not predict the desire to be famous. But the willingness to engage in risky or unethical behavior for fame was significantly higher for those who watched reality TV.

The study did not find any relationship between reality TV watching habits and relational aggression. In other words, the girls were just as nice or mean to peers irrespective of how much reality TV they were exposed to. This might come as a small surprise since relational aggression is very commonly depicted in reality television.

Overall, the researchers found that the effects of reality TV on adolescent behavior are not easy to box into a particular category.

The study does have some limitations according to the authors including the most important one – correlation does not imply cause. Since participants were tech-savvy girls, it may not be wise to generalize the results. Plus, the study did not include factors such as peer and family setting.  

Also, the focus on appearance may not be so bad after all according to the study, since this factor was not directly linked to lower self-esteem. The researchers believe that focus on appearance is a negative only when there are associated body image issues.

Future studies in this area must be conducted to clarify the cause-effect relationship between reality television and behavior before regarding this form of media as a public health problem.

The authors suggest that adolescent viewers are more actively involved in deciding what behaviors to imitate and are not as passive victims as most studies make them out to be. Another possibility is that reality TV may not be the channel used by girls to model their behavior.

Given that reality TV is here to stay, parents will benefit from a better understanding of how media interacts with their kids.

"This study is another factor pointing parents toward why they should be encouraging their children to go outside and do something rather than sit inside and watch something happening. The trend of young people watching more television and playing more video games has certainly added to the ongoing issue of American obesity," says Jack Newman, CEO of Austin Tennis Academy.  

"The Austin Tennis Academy trains female athletes (as well as male) in peer groups.  These peer groups are very powerful influencers on young females decision making about appearance and values.  Young people who are involved in organized sports like tennis, spend less time watching and more time doing their sport or activity.  They are focused on the values of hard work, goal setting and sportsmanship," Newman says.

This study was published in the June 2013 issue of The Journal of Pediatrics. No relevant financial relationships or conflicts of interest were disclosed.

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Review Date: 
May 23, 2013
Last Updated:
August 9, 2013