The Impact of Reality Shows on Children

Girl watching television
Child with remote control watching television (Image: Jupiterimages/Creatas/Getty Images)

Reality television has spread like wild fire, leaving little doubt that your children are likely to come across multiple examples of this type of programming — even those with casual viewing habits. It may leave you wondering what the potential impact of this is. Examining what is already known about reality shows and their influence on children can help you make informed decisions about how to handle the issue in your own home.

What is Reality TV?

Reality television consists of programs which purport to showcase people appearing as themselves in a variety of different contexts. Many reality programs revolve around competitions; others feature celebrities in their everyday lives. There are shows that center on small groups of otherwise unknown people, probing their interactions with one another. Additionally, you'll find shows that focus on teen pregnancy and the lives of teen moms. Whatever form they take, reality shows seek to create entertainment from the uncertainty of unscripted moments and events. They also look to present shocking, awkward or otherwise inflammatory situations — a consistent characteristic of most reality programming. Many of these shows are edited to create a specific theme or outcome, making them less reality.

Children as Viewers

Children who view reality programs have been shown to suffer ill effects from the content of such programming. One Australian study revealed that children who watched reality programming were significantly more likely to associate wealth, popularity and beauty as factors that contribute to happiness. It's no surprise that these are values frequently held in high esteem by many participants of reality shows. What's more, certain other reality programs such as "Fear Factor" that feature participants involved in disgusting or dangerous behavior inspired attempts to duplicate these acts by some younger viewers.

Children as Participants

Although not all reality programming involves underage participants, some do. These have also been shown to have a negative impact on the children involved. An environment in which kids find themselves surrounded by cameras much of the time has the tendency to make the challenges of growing up that much more difficult. Additionally, when competitive reality shows incorporate children, there is an added pressure and sense of rejection when things don't work out. The Canadian newspaper "The Globe and Mail" reported in 2009 on a program called "The Next Star," which focused on kids under 15, placing some contestants in embarrassing situations and leveling criticism (albeit constructive) at them on national television.

Combating the Influence

Needless to say, focusing on limiting the exposure your kids have to television is a good start to prevent reality TV from "taking over" in your house. You should explain to your children that reality shows are decidedly not reality. That stipulation goes a long way toward setting boundaries of behavior. Moreover, it's important that you or your children don't become passive recipients of the shows' messages. You should identify the values presented by each show and discuss those in depth with your kids to maintain a balanced view of what's important.

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