The harsh reality of Reality TV and mental health

Over the past few weeks watching MPs publicly question some of the most powerful people in UK broadcasting about programmes like Love Island, Big Brother and The Jeremy Kyle Show has been a bit like a reality TV show about reality TV.

The Chief Executives of ITV and Channel 4 have been put in some highly uncomfortable positions about a style of television that specialises in filming people who are under pressure.  

But the House of Commons inquiry into such programmes is also providing some welcome scrutiny of what reality TV means for the human beings involved.

So far, attention has focused overwhelmingly on the men and women who appear on reality TV shows – how are they selected, treated during filming and looked after (or not) once production has finished.

But in Channel 4’s written evidence to MPs, published this week, there are some fascinating clues about how reality TV might affect the millions of people on the other side of the screen: the viewers. This has been a question the Foundation has raised since MPs announced their inquiry into reality TV.

Capacity to do good

I have always believed that a social problem on the scale of mental illness can only be addressed if it becomes everyone’s business. In a tantalising glimpse of what TV companies know about this – and essentially what their programmes mean for audiences – Channel 4 has dared to suggest that reality TV has “the potential” to do good.

In support of this, it cites its own research findings about how some of its reality shows have, for instance, led some viewers to use social media more carefully (The Circle), to feel greater understanding for people who are not neurotypical (The Undateables) and to reflect on their prejudices (Bride and Prejudice).

Channel 4 also mentions its programme Naked Beach, which featured participants of different shapes and sizes naked on a beach, suggesting that viewers will have benefited from seeing people who looked like them and not only those with idealised and unattainable bodies.

Avoiding the topic

By contrast, ITV seems to have gone out of its way to avoid mentioning how millions of TV viewers are influenced by its shows. In 150 pages of evidence to Parliament’s reality TV inquiry and in several hours of questioning by MPs, the company has not mentioned audience impacts.

It’s easy to speculate about why ITV has avoided this topic (despite good broadcasting work during Mental Health Awareness Week), but the important point here is that the millions of people who watch reality TV shows are often affected by what they see.

Research has pointed to the existence of “media contagion”, ranging from spreading panic (which leads to further unhealthy choices) to having a negative impact on adolescent values, and from fuelling exploitative advertising to triggering increasing trends in suicides. Only this week, it was reported that Love Island appears to be affecting the behaviour of some primary school children.

Impact on body image

At the Mental Health Foundation, we have been especially concerned with how viewers may compare themselves with the people they see on screen – for instance on ITV’s Love Island. Academic research suggests that people do compare themselves – and that feeling they don’t measure up can contribute towards them feeling more shame and distress about their own bodies. This, in turn, can contribute towards some people having more serious emotional difficulties.

Survey evidence commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation points in a similar direction. Almost one-quarter (24 per cent) of 18-to-24-year-olds told YouGov that reality TV makes them worry about their body image. Our poll also suggested that the same young people are already more vulnerable than older adults to body-related distress, with nearly one-quarter of them (23 per cent) also saying they had had suicidal feelings because of concerns about their bodies.

These are some of the reasons why we were deeply disappointed when we saw the people selected to take part in the current season of Love Island, all of whom are young and conform to stereotypical ideals of what men and women should look like.  Several are actually professional models.

Time to re-evaluate

My point here is not that Love Island and other reality TV shows should be taken off air. Millions of people choose to watch them and enjoy them – and as Channel 4 has hinted, they can do good. Rather, I’m suggesting that it’s time everyone taking a critical look at reality TV, as well as those making it, should consider how it affects viewers, as well as their participants.

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