How Harmful Is Reality Television? 

Addie Mount, Staff Writer

Between watching couples work through relationship issues, people competing for rare opportunities, and celebrities panicking over lost diamond earrings, it is hard to say what the most addictive part of reality television is. Many psychologists argue that for avid reality TV viewers, it is simply the entertainment and captivation of watching drama that is not personally connected to them. For some, watching others’ lives is a good break from reality. Some say that the competitive nature of some reality shows is what gets people hooked. According to an article analyzing reality TV published by Society 19, “It has been found that people who have a competitive nature are more likely to watch reality televisions shows in a similar way that people enjoy watching sports. Many shows have the premise of competing for a prize.” 

Some psychologists have gone as far as to say that reality TV is as or more addictive as some drugs. According to an article by Ready Steady Cut, “Drama can inspire people to get obsessed with it not just because it is emotional and thrilling, but also because it can provide them with a sense of meaning. Drama causes physiological arousal, which raises our heart rate, and visceral arousal, which stimulates the production of endorphins in the brain, which are pain-suppressing and pleasure-inducing, similar to the effect of various drug addictions.” In addition to the entertainment factor, relating to the drama that others experience makes many people feel less frustrated in their struggles with personal drama. Junior Caroline Wilcox states that “Sometimes the drama in my life is so ridiculous and can easily be solved if people would step up, which I think is very similar to reality TV.” Seeing that others have to deal with immature drama too can make one feel validated. 

Another factor that makes reality TV so easy to binge is the carefully curated timing. For example, many shows will end an episode right before revealing a breakup, proposal, or a question that everyone wants the answer to. Doing this makes it much easier to think ‘okay, just one more episode’ and continue the cycle of binging a show. Producers put a large amount of time into analyzing when viewers tend to get bored, and they do their best to time big reveals to keep them captivated and interested. Most people tend to watch reality shows when they are already bored, so their attention span is likely shorter. Wilcox says, “I am mostly bored if I’m going to watch reality TV, but if I do find a reality TV series I like then I will get excited to watch it.” 

While we can all agree that reality TV is entertaining, it does not have an amazing impact on human behavior (of course, it is rare that TV does). Reality shows can negatively impact humans’ natural tendency to mimic the behaviors they observe around them. According to Time magazine, “To the extent that the U.S. has become a harsher, shallower, angrier, more divided place in the 21st century, reality TV—which has helped normalize cruelty, belligerence, superficiality, and disloyalty, and rewarded people who weaponize those traits—bears a share of the blame.” Reality shows would rarely be successful without these traits and the people who have them creating drama, but their actions do not set a good example for younger audiences. Reality shows also set unrealistic expectations about healthy relationships, since the couples in dating shows very rarely are in healthy relationships. The extreme factors such as not seeing your partner before you get married like in Netflix show “Love is Blind” surely have an effect. Nevertheless, the communication styles and behaviors shown should not be categorized as normal. 

Comparison is also a harmful factor of reality TV. There are very few, if any, reality shows that pick contestants that are not objectively attractive and skinny. When there is no range of appearances between contestants, it is hard not to compare yourself with them. Obviously, this issue is not exclusive to reality TV, but it is different when the characters are fabricated and when they are real people; it is harder to remind yourself that it is still staged and edited. Particularly in dating shows, this also sends the message that being objectively attractive and skinny is the only way you will be desirable to others. “Love Is Blind,” for example, received backlash about their lack of representation, they cast more plus size women. However, all but a few of these women were eliminated in the first round and never had interviews or up-close shots. 

It is also important to remember that nearly every situation in reality TV is dramatized and often only one side of the story is given. Reality TV is an effective distraction from reality and a good source of entertainment. However, it is important to continue to be mindful of the impact it leaves on its viewers.