August 11, 2014
By Holly Peek, M.D., M.P.H.
Posted in: Hot Topics, Teenagers
Research has shown that reality TV has an impact on the values of young girls and how they view real-life situations. That being the case, it’s important to take a look at some of the standards portrayed on reality TV.
Kim Kardashian was preparing to have her baby.
Instead of making sure she had her hospital room reserved and her bags prepared, she was instead on the phone with members of her “glam squad” to make sure they would be available to ensure her hair and makeup were perfect for the day of her delivery. Her sisters chastise her vain behavior as being “typical Kim,” and it is apparent where her values lie.
Meanwhile, on another cable channel, female socialites of Beverly Hills prepare for a dinner party. Almost as soon as the women arrive in their designer clothes, the wine, catty remarks and tears begin to flow. Throughout the booze-fueled dinner, the women accuse each other of spreading rumors, and the yelling and finger-pointing ensue. A typical dinner party for the “real” housewives.
Reality television is a huge part of our television viewing culture. It may be clear to many adults that not all is “real” in the world of reality TV. However, how do children and adolescents understand the world of reality TV? What could reality TV be teaching adolescent girls, in particular, about what is valued in the real world? And, how does it affect their attitudes, beliefs, self-image and behavior?
What are some of the common themes in reality TV?
Physical Beauty And Sex Appeal
Many reality shows depict women idealizing beauty and thinness, giving the impression that a woman’s value is based on her appearance, and that popularity is derived from beauty. Competition shows such as America’s Next Top Model perpetuate this ideal, as women compete with one another to gain a lucrative modeling contract. Plastic surgery shows such as Botched, as well as the former Dr. 90210 and The Swan feature people altering their appearance and becoming more satisfied with their looks and quality of life after surgery. Many cast members of other reality shows, such as The Real Housewives franchise, are very open about their numerous plastic surgeries.
Keeping Up with the Kardashians features the life of a family that spends a great deal of time and money on appearance, with a consequent rise in fame and popularity of its girls and women. Their Instagram pages, often followed by young fans of the show, are full of “selfies,” bikini and modeling photos. Photos that feature their “ordinary” everyday lives are highly sexualized, including the pages of the youngest teenage members of the family. This practice perpetuates the notion that “real” people gain popularity and happiness by focusing on their appearance—and to be successful, personal image, even at a very young age, should be laced with sexuality.
Materialism And Excessive Partying
Other common values perpetuated by reality TV include materialism, and an idealization of a hard-partying and “celebrity” lifestyle without regard for consequences. Both Rich Kids of Beverly Hills and Shahs of Sunset feature the lives of privileged young adults living in southern California. They take extravagant trips, wear designer clothes, spend a lot of money on alcohol-fueled parties, and are rarely seen working regular jobs. The cast of TheJersey Shore spends an entire summer binge drinking to excess, participating in risky sexual behavior, engaging in physical altercations, and even being arrested. Despite their obvious poor behavior and decision-making, their popularity continues to grow.
For anyone who has seen the 2013 movie The Bling Ring, this is an extreme example of how emulation of the celebrity and reality TV lifestyle can cause issues in teens. The movie is based on the true story of a group of teenagers in southern California who were responsible for the “Hollywood Hills robberies,” in which they robbed the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Audrina Patridge and several other celebrities. The teens idealized the party and high-fashion lifestyle that is often featured in gossip magazines and reality TV, and subsequently robbed the homes of celebrities to fuel this lifestyle. Although this is an extreme case, it does demonstrate the ability of this type of media to influence the values placed on materialism and excessive partying.
Aggression And Bullying
Reality TV typically reveals inappropriate behavior within peer groups, often promoting interpersonal drama, aggression and bullying. For example, women in The Real Housewives franchise gossip, back-stab and behave aggressively, condescending and catty toward one another. The expression of relational aggression between females seen across several reality shows gives girls the idea that gossiping is a normal part of a female relationship, that it’s in girls’ natures to be devisive and competitive with one another, and that being mean earns respect and is often necessary to get what you want.
As we try to discourage bullying, gossiping and other forms of interpersonal aggression between young girls, it’s unfortunate that reality shows often feature adults behaving in exactly this manner, all the while continuing to gain popularity in mainstream media.
Lack Of Focus On The Importance Of Intelligence And RealWorld Success
While reality TV seems to place emphasis on sex appeal, materialism, hard-partying and relational aggression, it does not emphasize the fact that many women on these shows are highly intelligent and successful in their real lives.
For instance, Adrienne Maloof, a former cast member on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, is a successful entrepreneur as a co-owner of several business ventures that include Maloof Productions and the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. However, it was her divorce and disputes with other female cast members that were her main focus on the show. Married to Medicine, a show featuring the lives of doctor’s wives and female physicians, focuses primarily on the conflicts among the women, not on their successful medical practices.
How To Talk With Your Children And Adolescents About Reality TV
It’s important to know how to talk to your kids about the blurred line between reality and reality TV. Since reality TV has such a strong foothold in American pop culture, it is likely not going anywhere or changing its content any time soon. However, parents can learn how to help their children critically appraise what they see in the media.
Tips for critical appraisal of the media:1
- Watch one or more reality TV shows with your teenager: First, ask what shows your teen is watching, and then determine which shows are appropriate for the age and maturity of your child. It might be that you decide that a young teen, like a 13-year-old, should not watch certain shows that a 16-year-old teen would be permitted. If you introduce “TV rules” such as these in your home, you might consider viewing the shows alone first before determining which are appropriate for your child. When watching a show with your child, feel free to make the statements or ask the questions posed in the tips below.
- Make a clear statement about the reality of reality TV shows: This is important, since kids need to know that while reality TV appears to be “reality,” it is a sensationalized reality of the television world. Nevertheless, it has an impact, and like many TV shows, can serve as a foundation for imitation. Example: “You know these shows are NOT REAL. They look like real life but are written just like other shows.”
- Find out what your child thinks is real: Start a conversation to gauge how your child views reality TV. There is no way of knowing what she thinks unless you ask. You can pose these questions about reality TV in general, or about a specific show that your child is watching. Examples: Ask her to describe what is going on in the show to get a sense for how she thinks people look and act. What is good or bad about some of the behavior you are watching together? Does she think people act in real life as they do on reality TV? If so, what has she seen among her peers or adults that resembles what she is seeing on reality TV?
- Find out if TV images affect your child’s self image and values: Reality TV and popular culture can dictate what is “cool,” and what it means to be accepted. Find out if your child is emulating values portrayed on reality TV. Examples: Does she envy the lifestyle of the charchters? Is there anything she would change about herself or wish she could do after seeing a particular show? What values are being displayed in the show? What are her values?
- Talk to your child about why she likes certain characters: It may be enlightening to find out why your child likes or dislikes certain characters. This can indicate what values your child may or may not be reflecting. Examples:What connections is she making between herself and the reality TV characters? Why does your child find certain characters appealing? Explore if that character is truly admirable, or is there something else that makes her or him seem cool. Does that character make a good role model? Would she like to behave similarly to that character? Who does make a good role model?
- Ask your teenager about what her friends are watching: Most kids watch the same shows, as it gives them common ground for conversation. Ask about her friends’ reactions to certain shows, episodes and/or behaviors. Examples: What do her friends think is cool? Would her friends want her to act like the characters in the show? Would she want her friends to act in certain ways?
- Help your child develop critical responses to what she observes on reality TV: Talking to the television and commenting when something seems unreal or scripted can help your child develop these critical skills. Use commercial breaks to discuss these elements or pause the show when you want to take a break and talk. Examples: Ask your child, “What is going on here? What is the message in this part of the show?” If your child cannot come up with answers, you can say, “I see people being really self-centered and vain, or nasty to a friend.” Your commentary may help initiate a conversation about the content of the show at any given point.
Although the programming of reality TV can be highly entertaining, it’s important to be aware of the messages and values that these shows often portray. More importantly, it’s essential to be aware of what our children are watching so that we can teach them how to recognize and process the skewed values of television reality. This is tricky, as this programming easily deceives viewers into believing it is a true reflection of the real world.
However, by following the tips above, your child can ultimately learn not to accept what is portrayed on reality TV as the truth, but rather to think more critically about what the characters are doing, and why they are behaving in certain ways. This knowledge will give your child the tools to develop stronger values, and a more solid self-esteem that is free from the influences of reality TV.
1Adapted in part from PBS.org
Holly Peek, M.D., M.P.H.
Holly Peek, M.D., M.P.H. is a resident psychiatrist at Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans. With a background in communication and media studies, her research has focused on the use of various forms of media by children and adolescents. Dr. Peek is ...
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Fourth Edition, November 2011
ENL 260: Best Essays in Intermediate Composition
1st Place Winner
Here’s the Situation…
An Evaluation of MTV’s “Jersey Shore”
It's ten o'clock on a Thursday night. The popcorn's ready. The anticipation is palpable as MTV's hit series, “Jersey Shore,” has its second season finale tonight. There has been enough drama, cat-fights, bar-fights, hook-ups, jokes, pranks, and controversy to accumulate a pretty decent ending to this fiery season, which was set in Miami. The drama is addicting – which is why we watch it – otherwise we would not be amused with such ridiculous antics brought about by these self-proclaimed American-Italian “Guidos” and “Guidettes.” No one questions the offensive series and how it may falsely portray the population of New Jersey or American-Italians as a whole. No one questions the fact that all of the binge-drinking, unprotected sex, slanderous name-calling, and the like may have a negative effect on America's youth. With the promotion of destructive behavior, and no display of its consequences, one must ask: is this series appropriate for cable television?
It airs at ten o'clock, which should be past many of our impressionable teenagers' bedtimes, but MTV's demographic appears to be youth-oriented. An article in the McClatchy-Tribune Business News states that MTV is “the highest-rated basic cable network channel among the important demographic category of people ages 12- 34” (Ruscitti). Stating that “the important demographic” watches MTV proves that the channel influences a large range of people, some perhaps too inappropriately young to watch it. Shows like “Made,” and “Teen Mom,” are centered on many teenagers' lives – which would be perfect to target to a young teenage audience. Unlike “Jersey Shore,” these shows are usually educational. “Teen Mom” shows the positive and negative effects of premarital sexual relations and its consequences of motherhood at an early age. It does not glorify underage sex, but it actually condones abstinence or the use of birth-control. “Made” is a show about young teens who wish to improve their lives via sports, hobbies, academics, and social activities – all very positive, and very effective. On the other hand, “Jersey Shore” glorifies sex, drinking, tanning, and so forth without its consequences and the only reason it is popular is because of its offensive drama.
Admittedly, it is an addicting show. I watch it as I would watch a car accident: thankful that I am only a bystander and not the actual offender. Every episode, the eight cast members drink themselves into oblivion and usually start a fight, hook up, or pass out. This behavior is entertaining to us. None of the actual real-life consequences are aired on the show. In fact, one of the “Jersey Show” girls, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi was arrested in July for “disorderly conduct.” A report from the New York Daily News, “'Jersey Shore' Star Snooki Arrested,” states that “she was passed out face down in the sand... she couldn't even stand up” (Goldsmith). Fortunately, she was famous enough for someone to help her. The average drunkard would not be received so kindly.
It is interesting to note that this incident was never aired on MTV. Not only would this have been a dramatic episode to fuel great ratings for the channel, but it would have shown the young audiences that binge-drinking has its negative effects that even the beloved stars of “Jersey Shore” endure. Perhaps MTV did not want to look bad by exploiting celebrities, but it's too bad these men and women of “Jersey Shore” are exploiting themselves once a week to America. They are either getting wasted, getting into fights, and basically ruining their reputations for all of America to see. However comical to us, their actions do have consequences that are not fully displayed on the show. Snooki’s little run-in with the law enforcement was not put in the media, and the cast of “Jersey Shore” remains invincible to crimes under the influence.
Apparently, the cast of “Jersey Shore” is invincible to the effects of skin cancer as well. The motto in the house “GTL,” which stands for “Gym, Tan, Laundry.” This is their mantra and their daily lifestyle. Sure, they are being responsible and doing their own laundry. They are also health conscious and hitting the gym daily. The promotion of tanning, however, is absurd. These orange-coated cast members are always discussing their tans and bickering over who has the best tan in the house. In fact, on the last episode during a “Superlative” sequence, they joked about their obsessive indoor-tanning lifestyles. Cast member “Pauly D” mocked that he was “most likely to get skin cancer.” As the rest of the house laughed at this remark, it made me think of the millions of Americans who face skin-cancer due to UV rays - whether from the sun or from tanning beds. You're right, Pauly, it is “funny” that you may get skin cancer, but it's a fact that, according to The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “using tanning beds before age 35 increases your risk of developing melanoma by 75 percent and occasionally using tanning beds can triple your chances” (FDA). Melanoma is not something to take lightly; it's a cancer of the skin and it is very fatal. The use of tanning beds is dangerous and its America's youth should be made aware of the consequences, not promoted.
Most significantly, there is a recurrent theme of their sexual escapades on the show, and there are many double standards surrounding them. Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino is known by his cast mates and MTV viewers for “hooking up” with a girl almost every episode in each season. “Hooking up” can range from kissing, to oral sex, to sexual intercourse. Might I add, he’s “hooking up” with a different girl – every episode, every season. Not once was a condom displayed, or birth control pills popped, or any type of precautionary measure to prevent STDs taken. It's almost as if Chlamydia does not exist in Seaside Heights, New Jersey – or South Beach, Miami, for that matter. A lot of “Jersey Shore” audiences are in for a big treat when they leave these vacation spots with much more than a souvenir. In fact, The Journal of Sex Research, a scholarly journal involved in the scientific study of sexuality, states that:
Fifteen- to 19-year-old women and 20- to 24-year-old men have the highest rates of gonorrhea. In addition, at least one half of all new HIV infections occur in people under the age of 25 (CDC, 2003). Behaviors associated with high HIV and AIDS risk, such as binge drinking, sexual intercourse with multiple partners, and low frequencies of condom use, are prevalent in college populations.
The fifteen to twenty-five year old population most at risk coincides nicely with MTV's demographics of “people ages 12-34.” I really just could not believe that with all of the sexual exhibitions, there was no mention of sexual health, sexual safety, or pregnancy concerns. There should be a general warning prior to the episode that condones some kind of preventative measures, but sadly, there is not such a warning. Sexual transmitted diseases are very common, and easily transferred, but “Jersey Shore,” the cast, and the producers at MTV make no mention of the severity or the concerns of sexual health.
The increasing rate of teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases are synonymous with the televised glorification of sex. Conversely, the show “Teen Mom,” which addresses this prevalence, tries to promote awareness in order to decrease the amount of children born to teenage girls. “Jersey Shore” promotes these high-risk behaviors by humorously displaying them on air for everyone to see. The Journal of Sex Research also states that “televised media has a negative influence on sexual risk-taking among young people, observing that media may encourage stereotypical sexual attitudes and push youth to engage in sexual behavior before they are ready.” You know, the “important demographic,” who is apparently watching MTV, may be getting these adult ideas a little too early. The number of sexual partners on the show is humorous to them. Two of the girls in the house, Snooki, and Jenni “Jwoww” Farley, made a scoreboard of the amount of hookups each cast-mate had over the season. The Situation obtained the highest amount of “smashes,” as they call sexual intercourse. Yet cast-member Angelina Pivarnick is still referred to as the “Staten Island Dump” for her sexual escapades – because she is a girl. The men are seen as “studs” for engaging in this many hookups, as the girls are seen as gross. This unfair double standard is comical to everyone in the house, it is never questioned, and the double standard often brings laughter to the audience watching it. It is a perpetual cycle of sexual inequality that is being glorified in this show.
The show's promotion of destructive behavior was never apparent to me until the second season finale. It was the last straw. I've realized that every episode is the same – someone fights, someone hooks up, something humorous happens and everyone goes home happy and unharmed. Unfortunately, the effects of their lifestyles are very detrimental. MTV's allowance of this monstrosity is absolutely inconceivable. After the airing of the season finale, it is evident that “Jersey Shore” fever is among us, with “Snooki” being a top Halloween costume, and people are still religiously devoting themselves to a “GTL” lifestyle. It may be comical, and it may seem harmless, but the hit series is offensive and makes you think, what are we really watching?
Salsano, SallyAnn, prod. "Jersey Shore." MTV. New York, New York, 29 July 2010. Television.
Ruscitti, Keith (18 May). Seaside Heights sees good times when MTV show returns. McClatchy - Tribune Business News. Retrieved November 8, 2010, from ProQuest Newsstand. (Document ID: 2035844551).
U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Link Between Tanning Beds and Cancer to be Examined at Capitol Hill Briefing Researchers and Patient Advocates to Share Insights With Lawmakers in Advance of FDA Hearing. (2010, May). Medical Letter on the CDC & FDA,165. Retrieved November 8, 2010, from Research Library. (Document ID: 2014712891).
Walsh, J., & Ward, L.. (2010). Magazine Reading and Involvement and Young Adults' Sexual Health Knowledge, Efficacy, and Behaviors. The Journal of Sex Research, 47(4), 285. Retrieved November 8, 2010, from Research Library. (Document ID: 2105919131).
Goldsmith, Samuel. "'Jersey Shore' Star Snooki Arrested in Seaside Heights, Charged with Disorderly Conduct: Report." New York News, Traffic, Sports, Weather, Photos, Entertainment, and Gossip - NY Daily News. 30 July 2010. Web. 08 Nov. 2010. <http://www.nydailynews.com/gossip/2010/07/30/2010-
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