Many of us may have conversed around the water cooler about the provocative behavior that is displayed on some reality TV shows. It’s like junk food: we love it and we know it’s bad for us, but we—and our children—watch anyway. You might say that it’s a parent’s duty to steer a child in the right direction; however, with loads of technology available at our fingertips on a variety of devices, it can be next to impossible to shield a child from junk TV. Reality TV is popular entertainment that may be having an impact on teenage girls, making it seem that the impertinent verbal exchanges and sometimes violent confrontations displayed heavily on reality TV shows such as Basketball Wives and Real Housewives of Atlanta are normal and desirable forms of behavior.
A research report commissioned by The Newspaper Association of America Foundation, Fitting into Their Lives: A Survey of Three Studies About Youth Media Usage by Vivian Vahlberg, found that “young people spend about as much time consuming media everyday (7 hours and 39 minutes) as their parents spend working.” Also, “if you factor in the additional media usage consumed in multi-tasking, young people pack 10 ¾ hours’ worth of media content into every day.” Many studies over the years have documented that some of our opinions are formed by what we consume through the media. Reflecting on over 10 hours of daily media consumption, it is reasonable to wonder how teenage girl’s behavior and perception – of society and of themselves – are being influenced by the portrayals of women on TV.
Jennifer Pozner, the director of Women in Media & News in New York City and the author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, shared her perspective on reality TV in an online interview with Anne Kingston of Maclean’s, a Canadian weekly magazine. Pozner emphasized how reality TV shows are all scripted with “Frankenbites,” which help exaggerate and distort a character’s true motives or intent. For example, she notes that former Real Housewives of Atlanta cast member Deshawn Snow was kicked off the show after the first season because she did not fit into the producers’ desired depiction of black women. Instead of highlighting the positive aspects of Snow as a dedicated student, an advocate for women of color, and an avowed Christian, the producers instead wanted to focus on negative imagery of black women.
The internet has become another host to negative depictions, through the posting of videos showing violent real-life confrontations such as the recent physical altercation between two teenage age girls in Ohio over a Twitter dispute that was videotaped and posted online—with over two million viewers. While there may be at best a tenuous connection to the Ohio incident, there is little doubt that its presence online is aimed at audiences who have been conditioned through media, including reality TV, to accept as normal, even heroic, behavior we would once criticize. It’s time to take a step back and reassess our TV standards and take a serious look at the psychological and behavioral impact television, particularly reality TV, has on today’s young women and girls—and vow to do something about it.