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Reality TV: Is it good or bad for society?

Published: 10 April 2013

Whether we like it or not, reality TV as a form of entertainment is here to stay. The important question is: how exactly is reality TV affecting society?

Reality TV: Is it good or bad for society?
By Lindsay de Freitas

Studies measuring the effects of television, in general, on society have been around for as long as television itself. Psychologist George Gerbner and Larry Gross of the University of Pennsylvania developed the ‘cultivation theory,’ which asserts that prolonged exposure to television can shape viewer’s concept of the world. For example, somebody who watches the news all day may feel as though the world is a dark, evil place. But does Gerbner’s ‘cultivation theory’ apply to a generation hooked on Keeping up with The Kardashians or Jersey Shore?

One aspect of society which reality TV is said to be affecting in a massive way, is society’s love for the superficial and aesthetic. “While the shows did seem to inspire healthier behaviour in some viewers, there was a lot of emphasis placed on superficiality – something, which over time, he said, may have an effect on viewers’ body image and self-esteem,” writes Dr. Peter Christenson, a professor of rhetoric and media studies at Lewis and Clark College on USA Today Education.

The perpetuation of stereotypes is a further concern when it comes to the effects of reality television. Reality TV brings the heavily stereotyped party animal, Italian-descent ‘Guido’s’ from Jersey Shore, the spoilt rich girls (and boys) from My Super Sweet 16 and the stressed-out, chaotic teenage mothers from Teen Mom right into our living rooms. According to Sherri Williams, a PhD. candidate and adjunct instructor at Syracuse University on USA Today Educate, it seems that reality show directors and producers are not looking to cast whole, complete people. “They’re casting types, and that leads to stereotyping.”

Many critics of reality TV have also lambasted its assistance in the moral degradation of our society. There are very few things in our society which are still considered taboo, and while reality TV is not solely responsible for that, it definitely is playing a role. Siebel Newsom, the creator of Miss Representation, a documentary which demonstrates the effects of television on teenagers, says, “We've got to elevate ourselves as a society. Our culture is celebrating (Kim Kardashian) for a sex tape, and the ambition in her family to exploit reality TV and our dumbed-down culture for her financial gain ... so frankly, right now, we need some serious elevation."

However, a few positives have come from reality TV. Many reality TV programmes are uplifting and give people a sense of hope in achieving their dreams. The study conducted by the Girls Scout Research Institute, of more than 1100 ‘tween’ and teenage girls found reality TV has some positive effects. 14-year-old Emily Davidson was particularly inspired by a contestant on popular fashion design reality TV programme, Project Runway, who had HIV. “I thought, wow, if you had HIV and you could do that, imagine what I can do?" said Davidson, who is interested in fashion design. "There's always someone who comes from nothing and does well." Similarly, 15-year-old Jennifer Heynez, spoke of how The Biggest Loser inspired her mom to start exercising and eat healthier.

As is the case with most things in life, in order to avoid harmful side-effects, reality TV needs to be consumed in moderation. The key to not being overly affected by reality TV programs is simple, according to American teenager, Kate Schneider: "As long as you know it's fake and not real life, you can enjoy it.”

Can you think of any reality TV shows that affect society in a bad way or alternatively have a really positive effect? Tell us below.

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