Fast fame…

In March I was interviewed for a piece in DigitalSpy about reality TV and how it impacts contestants. Following the cancellation of the Jeremy Kyle show this week I thought I’d share the thoughts that I prepared for my interview (link for the article is at the end). 

Reality TV shows such as Love Island and Big Brother can create overnight celebrities – what kind of impact could this have on an individual’s mental wellbeing? 

Research shows that even fame that occurs via organic growth can be hard to deal with. For example, one study in the Journal of Phenomenological Psychology looked at well-known American celebrities finding that many stars find ‘themselves ill-equipped for and struggling with the deluge of attention that comes with fame.’  It’s an unfamiliar world where all eyes are suddenly on that person. This is for people pursuing a career in acting or music for example, not necessarily in it for the fame itself. When people enter reality TV a large part, if not their only driver is fame, but that doesn’t mean they know what to expect if and when they get it. 

The sudden fame can feel confusing like they’ve literally lost ownership of their own life. More mainstream celebrities report feeling like they are no longer a person but instead become a ‘thing’, an object that people can comment on and obsess over without any consideration of the person beneath. Suddenly they cannot just go anywhere and do anything without being recognised which may at first feel exciting but can quickly feel extremely threatening.  Ultimately this can result in a hyper vigilance of people who want to befriend them and a mistrust of others intentions. In turn leading to isolation not just from a ‘normal’ social network but from anyone who may be able to understand what they are going through. 

There’s been talk of feelings of a ‘come down’ after the show, can you offer any insight into what this might mean and why it could be experienced by contestants?

Being on a reality TV show involves close knit interaction with other people over an extended period, a high level of competition and an awareness that you’re constantly being ‘observed’ or performing. All of these things trigger various mechanisms within the brain releasing a flood of different neurochemicals. For example, one neurochemical, oxytocin is released when we’re in social groups such as the groups ‘created’ on reality TV. Oxytocin is linked to human bonding and makes us feel really good. Another neurochemical, adrenaline, is released in response to constant pressure and competition such as that found on reality TV. A surge of adrenaline makes us feel alive, it’s literally exhilarating. 

When the show ends these neurochemicals stop being released and contestants will feel like being taken off a drug that makes them feel good. A bit like sobering up after a fun drunken night out. Added to which they will most likely have feelings of sudden isolation. They have left an intense social setting where they are with people 24/7, experiencing exactly the same things as them to being alone or with people who haven’t been through the same thing and cannot empathise with that experience. This will at times feel daunting and very lonely. 

On top of all of this, contestants have gone from having a clear goal to focus on – winning or staying in until the end, to nothing. They leave the show and there is nothing concrete to look forward to. They suddenly lack purpose which makes anyone feel at a great loss and can generate feelings of anxiety and even depression. 

Social media trolling seems to be a real issue, particularly when viewers form an opinion based on what they have seen on television – how could this affect someone that’s suddenly receiving an influx of negative comments? 

Firstly, the television show itself removes the context around conversations. It’s easy to see how something can be warped in completely the wrong way without the entire circumstance being clear.

An article written called ‘Perspectives on Context’ written by Professor Paul Bate gives illustrations of how take things out of context plays out. 

‘In the National Post in 2008, details of a murder were published :

“a man fatally shot his wife in the chest and got away with it”.

Our reaction is an immediate sense of outrage at the ills of modern society.

However, the reality is that the accused was an elderly man diagnosed with a terminal illness, married for many years to a woman who had developed Alzheimer’s disease. He was fearful she would suffer unduly without his care. Knowing, too, that his own death was imminent, he chose to end her life.

Or another simple example

If a man in the street starts yelling “move” it’s rude, but it’s what you would want someone to be shouting if someone was yielding a gun or a building near you was about to collapse. 

Within a TV editing suite many things can be taken out of context for the purposes of exciting viewing but to the detriment of contestants. 

Secondly social media itself doesn’t provide context or meaning and allows people to make comments that we just wouldn’t face to face in ‘real’ social settings – for fear of upsetting someone and having to deal with the consequences. In addition, in ‘real’ life only one or two people are able to speak to us at one point of time, then the conversation moves on building on what has come before or how responses have been made. On social media everyone can pile in at once, without any regard for any of the other comments made and not allowing ‘the person’ themselves to respond. In short, social media removes the natural barriers a) allowing raw cruelty without any social consequences for the commentator b) an unnatural number of responses which in ‘real life’ just wouldn’t be possible c) no context allowing perceptions to be skewed and d) allows no natural retort or defence to alter the course of the conversation. This can have a massively negative impact on an individual. 

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Nothing will work unless you do…

…and yet we’re still not teaching kids how they work.

Having profiled hundreds of leaders as well as people from across a range of backgrounds, I have seen the clear patterns and links between life success, well-being and fulfilling potential with the psychological skills learnt in the teenage years. However, it’s not just what I have seen myself, this is backed by a huge amount of data and research. Literally hundreds of studies of what is often referred to as social and emotional learning (SEL) have documented the short-term benefits and more recent studies have shown the benefits lasting across time with both economic and societal return on investment for SEL in schools (e.g. Belfield et al., 2015).

One study analysed data from 82 schools involving nearly 100,000 students looking at the impacts of SEL across a time span of 6 months to 18 years and clearly demonstrated the benefits to students from all types of backgrounds, both underprivileged and wealthy. Social emotional learning was shown to prepare students to move successfully through school and college, and to be productive workers and good citizens with positive mental health. The only catch being that without ‘quality implementation’, not using people who really know what they’re talking about or using evidence based schemes, the potential positive impact of any learning is significantly reduced (Taylor et al., 2017).

From the other end of the spectrum, the impact of a lack of SEL in schools has a huge economic cost. A recent Cabinet Office report revealed that the government in England and Wales is spending nearly £17 billion on the short-term costs of ‘picking up the pieces from damaging social issues affecting young people, such as child abuse and neglect, unemployment and youth crime’ which extends further still when looking at the longer-term impact or the wider social or economic costs’. The report suggests that the solution is to ensure that ‘everyone is able to realise their full potential by developing the range of skills we all need to thrive’ namely the following social and emotional capabilities:

  • Self-perceptions, self-awareness and self-direction (including self-esteem and the belief that one’s own actions can make a difference);
  • Motivation;
  • Self-control/self-regulation (generally characterised as greater impulse control and fewer behavioural problems);
  • Social skills, including relationship skills and communication skills;
  • Resilience and coping.

The report found that teaching these skills led to ‘top’ job advantage, qualifications, adult mental health, life satisfaction, socio-economic benefits, labour market health and other health related outcomes. It concluded that their findings provide a robust case for increased local and national commitment to supporting the social and emotional development of children and young people.  Further support was offered by the current education secretary in February 2019 setting out the vision for building character and resilience being ‘as important as academic achievement’. The question remains however, what is actually being done?

Added to all of this I would argue that it’s critical for children to understand how the brain works. Without this knowledge the picture is far from complete. Children need to learn how to work with their brain, optimise their performance and understand the fundamental mismatch between the brain and the world we live in. This provides the backdrop to why we do many of the things which feel odd or work against common sense. For example how even a strong willed independent person can end up conforming to a group, why our emotions don’t always make sense, why analysing things in the outside world helps to create resolution but analysing things in our own head can cause massive issues.

I don’t believe it should be just leaders who learn these skills i.e. those who already have a pretty good grasp of their social and emotional capabilities.  So, I am starting a school tour where giving free talks to sixth formers. The aim is to help them understand some of the basics and provide them with access to tools and materials to support this in a more ongoing context. If you know a school that may be interested, please do let us know.



Cabinet Office report, Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2015 ‘SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL LEARNING: SKILLS FOR LIFE AND WORK’ edited by Leon Feinstein, Director of Evidence, Early Intervention Foundation

Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school‐based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta‐analysis of follow‐up effects. Child development, 88(4), 1156-1171.

“Nothing will work unless you do” Maya Angelou