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.