Keeping up with reality: how does realty television affect teens?

Julie Conroy, world languages teacher, enjoys reality t.v. and would be Chris Harrison from The Bachelor if given the chance to be any reality star.

Isha Kukadia

Julie Conroy, world languages teacher, enjoys reality t.v. and would be Chris Harrison from The Bachelor if given the chance to be any reality star.

More than 13.3 million viewers tuned in to ABC to watch the Dancing with the Stars finale on May 19, 2015. Eleven million fans watched the Voice, and 7 million people dedicated an hour of their lives to the Bachelorette.

As reality shows continue to grow in popularity among teenagers and adults alike, behavioral scientists are assessing the shows’ impact on society’s psychology. A study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture revealed that individuals’ perceptions of the real world had a direct correlation to the media they consumed on reality shows. For instance, viewers with significant exposure to Jersey Shore or Keeping Up With the Kardashians displayed a more cynical attitude towards relationships and a negative perception of women.

Perhaps more troublingly, reality show viewers behave more aggressively after watching television than both surveillance show viewers and fictional crime drama viewers according to a study conducted by Bryan Gibson, a psychologist at Central Michigan University.

These shows also have an addictive aura to them, attracting more viewers each week. During The Bachelor’s season finale earlier in the year, viewership increased by eight percent from the previous week’s episode.

“I think a show like The Bachelor has a cult following at this point, so I do think there are people who are addicted,” said Julie Conroy, world languages teacher.

“The relatability is what makes [people] want to watch [the show] more,” said Cari Nodus, a teenager who frequently tunes in to reality shows when they air. “People want to see something they have, but better… because they wish their lives were more exciting.”

Despite the detrimental cognitive damage that can be caused by these shows, however, faithful viewers continue to watch them week after week, providing the shows’ producers with incentive to keep filming more episodes.

Nonetheless, if viewers don’t become addicted to the shows they watch, reality television could provide them with just as much entertainment as any other fictional series.

“I find it very entertaining to watch these people who I think are kind of crazy,” Conroy said.

Furthermore, the plethora of reality show genres and topics also cater to individual viewers’ preferences.

Even though some series are rumored to be scripted, audiences still find that reality shows are easier to relate to.

“I think that some reality shows are at least mostly real,” Nodus said. “But many [others] are scripted and don’t represent actual reality.”

In a recent poll conducted by Time magazine, 68 percent of girls who watch reality television claim that it gives them a sense of confidence, and that it shows them that ordinary people can have a chance at fame.

Additionally, reality shows depict a variety of backgrounds that aren’t usually pictured in regular television shows. They aim to exhibit real people, so characters often come from different beliefs. Because of this, these shows introduce perspectives that are different than traditional ideas.

Reality shows are also more likely to portray controversial issues than scripted series are, because they try to incorporate the hardships that real people face. Whether the topic is a disease or a societal norm, viewers are more likely to be impacted by a real person recounting his experiences, rather than by a character who is reciting his lines.