Reality Television Creates Adolescent Un-Reality

Hope Weston

Mass Communications

November 21st, 2016

Word Count: 1261

Reality Television Creates Adolescent Un-Reality

“The media is the message and the messenger” is a quote from Pat Mitchell, the CEO and President of the Paley Center for Media.  This quote is from Miss Representation, a documentary that  discusses many forms of media and the effect they have on society. Television in particular has been one of the most influential and invasive forms of mass media known to man. Reality television in particular has become one of the popular forms of television programming, as well as one of the most detrimental. Reality television negatively affects adolescents, ages 11-16 years, and their self-identification.

Television has come a long way from where it began in the 1930’s, but “in the 1980’s, the balance of power between audience and broadcasters began to change” (Hanson, 2016). Audiences were beginning to have control of the programs they watched and when they watched them. From the 1980’s through today, viewers have witnessed a significant expansion in cable and broadcast television alike. Television networks had to find a way to keep their viewers’ attentions and keep them entertained. The first show of the genre we know today as Reality Television is considered to be 1973’s An American Family which showed an “artful, excruciatingly real portrayal of a family in transition” (Barovick, 2008) and covered controversial topics of the 1970’s including divorce and homosexuality. The nation was shocked, entertained, and hungry for more. It is hard to say what sparked the avalanche of reality shows from American Idol,  Survivor, The Bachelor and Ice Road Truckers. However, we now know that all forms of reality television play an undeniable role in televised media and in our youth’s social and psychological understanding of the world.

To understand the impact television, and Reality Television in particular, has on our youth, we must first understand the amount of time youth spends watching television, and what draws them to Reality Television in the first place. Our textbook states that “A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children spend an average of four and a half hours a day watching television content” (Hanson, 2016) and the average does not vary much when speaking about adolescents or adults. Another study stated that “at any given moment in the evening more than one-third of the U.S. population is watching television” (Hanson, 2016) and even more than that during the winter months! In a study done by Nielson Media Research, they attempted to understand which adolescents were drawn to reality television and what the causes of that might be. They did an online survey of 1098 teens and pre-teens and found that “there was a strong positive correlation between valuing popularity and being connected to reality programming. As well, those who highly valued physical attractiveness were much more likely to be connected to reality programming” (Dodrill, 2012). So not only are adolescents who value popularity drawn to these programs, but adolescents who value being physically attractive are also more likely to feel compelled to watch  and personally connect with reality television. The same article also clarifies that “Reality programming (and television shows in general) will, to varying degrees, be something students connect to and engage with as they mature.” (Dodrill, 2012) This can be for many reasons, but from our own experiences we can recognize the ways we seek out the human experience and, undeniably, find connections through all sources of media, especially television.

Teens and pre-teens are drawn to reality television for a few reasons: human connection, curiosity about the human experience, and of course, downright “bad” entertainment. What does this dramatized, sexually-explicit, and overall romantically-themed television programming do to the developing minds of teens and pre-teens? There have been many studies and articles written on this topic, especially on the topic of sexual development and how it is affected by these kinds of programs. In a cohort study done by the International Communication Association on the ”motives for and effects of viewing romantically-themed reality television (=RTRT)” (Cohort Study, 2011), we begin to understand the dangerous effects of these programs. Romantically-themed reality television is, for example, shows like The Bachelor, Temptation Island, or Are You the One? But also extends to any programming that contains sexual content, which, according to the study “more than 50% of reality shows feature sexual messages on television” (Cohort Study, 2011). This study was broken into two parts, the first discussing why adolescents watch romantically-themed reality television, the second the effects of said exposure to RTRT as I will now refer to it. The study showed that “Adolescents who frequently watch romantically-themed television, for instance, have been found to endorse more traditional gender role attitudes in dating situations” (Cohort Study, 2011) which leads us to believe that the more RTRT exposure a teen has, the more likely they will buy into potentially harmful stereotypes about male dominance and female submission. This exposure can also alter an adolescent’s perception of their peers. The study shows that “Exposure to sexually-oriented television contents can increase adolescents’ estimates of the prevalence of sexual behaviors among their friends. In addition, the study revealed that, for females, the viewing of soap operas was related to higher estimations of both male and female peers’ sexual experiences” (Cohort Study, 2011). This goes to show that the more sexually-explicit material is watched, the more adolescents are likely to assume their peers are sexually-active and warp their sense of self-expectation when it comes to their own sexual maturation.

This exposure not only affects the way adolescents see their own sexual identities and the possible sexual experiences of their peers, it can also heavily affect the way adolescents interact with each other. A survey in 2011 found that “Girls who watch reality TV were much more likely than non-watchers to perceive gossiping as a normal part of a relationship between girls, that it is “in girls’ nature to be catty and competitive with one another,” and to respond that “it’s hard for me to trust other girls.” They also tended to believe success requires some combination of meanness and deception.” (Weller, 2014) It doesn’t take a sociologist to see why this could be a huge problem in terms of bullying, self-hate, and emotionally abusive friendships. Why would we want anyone to believe that to be successful you have to lie or be mean to others? But the characters in Reality Television are so often presented as deeply flawed, very dramatized and overall “fake” versions of real people. This gives our youth a terrible representation of the kinds of people that exist in the world, as well as an unrealistic perspective on human relationships and interactions.

While we can see the effects of different sources and mediums of media on the generations of today, it can be hard to know where to start to mend the problems. When so much of our media is sensationalized, sexualized, and overall shows an un-realistic version of the society we live in, we cannot legitimately blame our youth and adolescents for having the thoughts and social understanding that they do. We must begin to recognize the negative effects that Reality Television, or “un-reality television” (Weller, 2014) as we have come to know it, and remove these ideologies and examples when speaking about how relationships and social situations truly manifest themselves. Censorship is not the issue here, but a blatant disregard for the separation of fact and fiction is a huge problem society faces today. All one can do is use one’s own perceptions of real life, away from television, the internet and other media, to create the reality around us.


Topic: How does Reality Television affect young adolescents (ages 11-16)  in the United States?


Barovick, H. (2008). A Brief History of Reality TV. Retrieved November 15, 2016, from,8599,1842705,00.html

Dodrill, S. M. (2012). The appeal of reality television for teen and pre-teen audiences. Journal Of Youth Ministry, 10(2), 104-107.

Hanson, R. E. (2015). Mass communication: Living in a Media World (5th ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE.

Motives for and Effects of Adolescents’ Exposure to Romantically-Themed Reality Television. A Prospective Cohort Study. (2011).Conference Papers — International Communication Association, 1-34.

Newsom, J. S., Scully, R. K., Congdon, J., Holland, E., Cvetko, S., Heldman, C., . . . Dawson, R. (2011). Miss representation (90 min. version; customized educational footage.). [Sausalito, Calif.] : [San Francisco, Calif.]: Ro*co Films Educational ; Girls Club Entertainment.

Weller, C. (2014). WELCOME TO MY UN-REALITY. Newsweek Global, 162(6), 106-110.


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