Why Reality Shows Are Bad for Children

Shows that focus on bullying, aggressive behaviour and unhealthy competition adversely impact children who may confuse reality TV and the real world

By Sahana Charan

Why Reality Shows Are Bad for Children

Scene 1: A jovial group is sitting around in a living room talking casually. From a corner of the room, one of the women points her finger at another, accusing her of arrogant behaviour and not doing the tasks assigned to her. A heated argument ensues and they almost come to blows. In another conversation, happening in the same room, two men are talking in whispers, about another member of that group. “She is a liar and a busybody. Be wary of her company,” one of them says.

Scene 2: In one particular international model hunt show, young girls still in their teens proudly show off their stick-thin bodies and talk about winning at all costs. There is a lot of drama and crying in the name of bagging the modelling contract and the message is that physical beauty and fame are more important in life than other values.

Well, these scenes are slowly moving from the television to our homes. Reality shows definitely impact our children in more ways than one. 

So what is prime time reality TV all about ? There is melodrama, bullying, back-biting, gossip and bad interpersonal relationships. Some reality shows can be quite entertaining and many people get drawn to these shows. But is it appropriate for children to watch reality shows that promote the kind of behaviour, which we as parents otherwise do not approve of?

The Dangers of Reality TV

Psychiatrist Holly Peek, in her article in a Harvard Medical School publication, talks about how it is important to be aware of the messages and values that these shows often portray. “More importantly, it’s essential to be aware of what our children are watching so that we can teach them how to recognize and process the skewed values of television reality. This is tricky, as this programming easily deceives viewers into believing it is a true reflection of the real world,” she says.

As adults, we are mature enough to comprehend the difference between real life and the life portrayed in such shows. But children may not have the maturity to draw a line between what’s shown as ‘real’ in reality TV and what actually happens in the real world. So there is a danger of children confusing real life with the perceived reality of these programmes.

Some reality shows also show participants taking extreme risks and putting themselves in bizarre or dangerous situations. Since younger children mostly learn through imitation, watching such programmes may put them at risk of physical injury. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology indicated that children who viewed high-risk TV programmes increased their self-reported risk-taking behaviour significantly more than children who were exposed to low-risk TV or watched less TV.

“Reality shows that are focussed on some people and their day-to-day lives are a big nuisance according to me and as parents we need to draw a line when it comes to children watching such shows. They portray everything in an exaggerated manner which is not at all a reflection of real life. This should be made clear to our children. Reality talent shows on the other hand, make parents feel that their own children are inadequate,” says Sandhya Prabhu, mother of a 10-year-old girl.

It’s About the Ratings

Not all reality TV is like that. There are some programmes such as a particular singing show and few cookery-based competitive shows that the family and children love watching. They are more entertaining than melodramatic soaps and also engage children in a healthy way.

“All television programmes including reality TV are based on certain formats and how these are formatted depends on the particular television channel. It’s true that some channels may tweak their format to get the ratings up and they may not really be concerned about how this affects children,” says a senior electronic media professional, who has been in the industry for two decades.

According to him, majority of prime time television programming in India is targeted at the 25-40 year age group and predominantly women.

Reality shows are targeted at people with a certain sensibility. “If parents themselves are not very keen on watching such content, children also may not be that interested. Its a matter of not attaching too much importance to it,” he adds.

How It Affects Children

“The biggest concern about some of these programmes is the complex human dynamics, the manipulation and the back-biting that is portrayed. If there is no supporting adult to make children understand that such shows are scripted, they will use their own imagination and understanding to take in the messages being relayed to them,” says Arundhati Swamy, Counsellor and parenting expert.

She gives these pointers on how children can be adversely affected by reality shows:

Physical Risks --

1.Copying risky behaviour can put children at risk of physical injury.

2.Some children who are constantly watching aggressive situations in shows, might try to use violence as a means to settle tussles and arguments.

Emotional Risks --

1. Those who are vulnerable to negative messages and may not have good decision-making skills, will not have the maturity to realise that these shows are scripted.

2. Few children will have the emotional maturity to view it as just another programme. But some, who have low self-esteem might imitate negative behaviour and do something drastic to seek attention.

3. They will think that being aggressive and manipulative, using violence and showing disrespect to others is allowed.

4.They may get so involved in a programme that they lose touch with reality.

5. They may reject the concept of fair play and believe that getting to the top by any means is important.

Children as Participants in Reality Shows

There are innumerable reality shows these days that have children as their main stars -- mostly singing shows and dance reality shows that focus on a child’s talent. Most parents find these programmes entertaining and harmless. While these could be an opportunity for talented children from less-privileged to come into the limelight, the pressure on the children to perform and excel is too much. The shows are highly competitive and these kids are subjected to constant scrutiny, which can affect their mental health.

“When you have a child who is exceptionally talented, it takes a mature parent to encourage their child in a positive way, who is clear about not using the child for their own benefit. It is okay to be competitive and if the child is clear about her goals and the emotional maturity to handle the pressure, she may cope well. But those who do not, try to adapt from a survival point of view and this can adversely affect them,” says Arundhati.

How Parents Can Intervene

1.First establish that watching reality shows is not a priority in the family.

2.According to the age and understanding of your child, explain what your family belief systems and values are and that they do not match what is shown in reality TV.

3.Help the child understand the impact such programmes can have and that real life is different from what is projected in a reality show.

4.Have discussions about this in a friendly and non-threatening manner.

POPULAR REALITY TV SHOWS IN INDIA

1.SaReGaMa Lil Champs -- This series showcases the singing talents of children through a competition. It is extremely popular with children as it focusses on the spirit of friendship and fun.

2.Kaun Banega Crorepati -- A television quiz game show series, it has impacted children in a way that they have become more inquisitive and has enhanced their learning.

3.Big Boss - It is a television reality show based on the format of the international show, Big Brother, where contestants stay in a house together isolated from the rest of the word. The interactions and deep human dynamics played out impact the audience including children.

4.MTV Roadies -- This is a youth-based reality show, extremely popular with youngsters because of the challenging nature of the tasks given to contestants which test their physical and mental ability.

5.Indian Idol Junior -- This is a singing challenge series based on the Pop Idol format and children like it as it showcases young singing talent and because of the interesting interactions of the participants and the judges.