We ask a psychologist if it’s possible to watch reality TV in a responsible way and how to know if your online comments are actually trolling

Debates on reality TV long are long-standing. Do you watch it? Should we watch it? Are we being dumbed down by easy-viewing shows? And, more recently, has reality TV run its course?

But, as a reality TV watcher, my question is neither whether these shows should still be made, nor is it whether we should still be watching these shows. Reality TV has been a popular genre since its very beginning and the love for these shows isn’t going anywhere. Instead, I am interested in how they can be made responsibly by TV producers and, indeed, what the implications are on us, the audience. Can we watch reality TV responsibly?

There have been some big changes made to our TV schedules this year, most notably in the cancelling of The Jeremy Kyle Show. In light of this and following the deaths of previous contestants, Love Island producers have made arguably stronger efforts this year in looking after the cast’s wellbeing. Yet, despite this, the show continues to be the subject of wide-ranging criticism. Body image, diversity on screen, the ability of show producers to create TV villains and heroes, and more - of course, there are still huge issues with what we see represented on screen.

But, Love Island (and many other shows fall under the reality TV genre) brings in some of the highest audience figures we’ve ever seen. It’s popular despite - or in spite of - all of its flaws. This year's season of Love Island alone has seen viewing figures grace six million.

And it’s not just the television shows themselves that have our attention - there’s the group chats, the memes, the Twitter threads, the tabloid headlines. And, particularly for shows such as Love Island, which tend to take over our consumption of general media (not just our televisions) for a prolonged period of time, there can be an element of enjoyment that comes from laughing at the contestants.

Indeed, if you read around the subject of reality TV shows and our penchant for them, you’re likely to come across the word ‘schadenfreude’. That is, the pleasure we get from watching another person's misfortune - when people crumble right before us on the screen.

But, when does watching someone else’s misfortune cross a line into darker territory? Do we become trolls by retweeting a hilarious gif of someone falling over? And are there lessons we can learn in order to make sure we’re watching reality TV responsibly?

Chartered psychologist, Dr Audrey Tang, provides some insight. “What we might call ‘social commentary’ - the discussion and analysis of relationship behaviours - is sometimes, in reality, cruel memes, hashtags, and a large amount of vitriol expressed on an edited narrative. Contestants on a reality TV show are still people who will, at some point, see what has been said and potentially be affected by it.”

It seems, even in spite of all we know about the impacts of bullying on a person’s mental health, we still cannot resist the temptation to take to social media to make comment about our favourite (or least favourite) reality TV stars. It’s something that Amy Hart, of this year’s Love Island cast, knows all too well.

“Some would say with Love Island or other reality TV shows, that if you don't like it, just switch it off. But, notably, those who love the shows often talk rather less about the contestants and more about the connection that collective viewing brings them in conversations with friends or colleagues,” says Dr Audrey.

So, if we still want to watch reality TV shows and we still want to take part in the conversation (online as well as offline), how can we make sure that we’re doing so in a way that’s respectful, or responsible? Below, Dr Audrey provides some insight.

Are we bullies if we write mean posts about reality TV contestants?

Bullying is often defined as repeated behaviour which is intended to hurt someone either emotionally or physically. This can take many forms, from physical assault to teasing, making threats, name calling and cyberbullying.

While one could argue that ‘mean posts’ are not necessarily repeated behaviour, it is important to remember that, at least in the workplace, “bullying behaviour” is addressed when it is perceived as such by the recipient. Therefore, a better rule of thumb is to ask two questions:

  1. Would I be affected emotionally if I saw someone said that about me?
  2. Would someone I knew, and who I knew would see it, be affected by it emotionally when they read it?

A third question, if really necessary: If this was said about my son/daughter/loved one, would I find it unacceptable?

If the answer is yes to any of those questions, it would not be appropriate to write about anyone.

What can we do instead?

  • Be mindful that we are not projecting unresolved anger about our own relationships onto our perception of contestants’ behaviour and - if we are - seek support for it.
  • Ask questions of behaviour - rather than passing judgment on others. So often, parents and teachers are supported to refer to the behaviour as “bad” rather than the child. It is possible to do the same when passing comment on contestants of reality shows.
  • Avoid retweeting, sharing or repeating trolling comments - I note, positively, that there now seems to be censorship on the Love Island twitter feed, and many news reports now are not repeating any specific nasty tweets. However, demeaning comments are acceptable on some closed forums and while, of course, there is freedom of speech, perhaps we can also think critically about what we engage in and how constant contact in that environment may affect us.
  • If something resonates with us, direct spare time and energy learning more rather than commenting. Learning may be more valuable than “likes” long term.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is to just be nice. We can’t control the actions or the words of others, but we don’t have to partake in the trolling. If you see something abusive online, report it.

Or, instead of fighting hate with hate, channel your energy in positive ways - why not post something in support of your favourite reality TV star? Remember that even a small gesture of kindness can go a long way.

Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist, mindfulness expert, TV psychologist and the author of The Leader's Guide to Mindfulness, published by FT Publishing, priced £14.99.

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