Does Reality Television Have a Negative Impact on Teenagers?

Reality television has dominated the airwaves since the turn of the century. Cheap to produce and popular with viewers, reality shows cover nearly aspect of human life from work to play. Some shows, such as “Big Brother,” pit competitors against each other to win a prize in a highly constructed setting. In others, such as “Hell’s Kitchen,” participants compete for a job in their chosen industry. Still others, including “Jersey Shore,” depict life, albeit a tightly controlled version, as it happens. While the shows are diverse in content, all are predictably packed with conflict and stress.

History of Reality TV

First aired in 1992, MTV's “The Real World” was arguably the first reality show 1. During the show’s 1994 season, television audiences watched in horror as bad boy Puck tore into HIV sufferer and activist Pedro on “The Real World: San Francisco.” The housemates, unable to tolerate the strife, summarily voted Puck out of the house, in the process creating a brand-new aspect of reality TV 1. In 2000, “Survivor” defined the genre, pitting 16 strangers against each other on a deserted island in a competition for $1 million. During that show’s first season, the water cooler buzz focused on whether it was ethical for “Survivor” contestants to create an alliance. But it was Sue Hawk’s “snakes and rats” speech on the final episode of that season that's remembered. It remains one of the most shocking TV moments of all time. An explosion of reality shows soon followed, each striving to be more shocking than the next.

Aggression and Bullying

Today, screaming matches are a given on reality shows, and physical altercations are not uncommon. According to an article on, even singing competition show “American Idol” features an average of 57 aggressive acts per hour. A 2011 study by the Girl Scout Institute and cited by shows that girls who watch reality TV are more likely to accept drama and aggression in their own lives 4. They view gossip and catty behavior as normal, and might begin to feel that bullying is the best way to get ahead.

Body Image and Self-Esteem

Although they are presented as average, everyday people, reality stars sport expensive hairstyles, perfectly applied makeup and expensive clothes. According to a 2011 "Time" magazine article, the Girl Scout Institute study shows 80 percent of young teen girls who watch reality shows believe that they are mostly real rather than scripted 4. The belief that the girls on TV are naturally picture-perfect leads to pressure on the girls to look as polished as their reality star role models. About 72 percent of teen girls who watch reality television spend a significant amount of time on their appearance, compared to 42 percent of non-watchers 4. Some girls even believe that outer beauty is more important than inner beauty.

Positive Effects

Reality TV’s effects on teens are not all bad. According to the "Time" article, most reality television-watching teen girls are confident, outgoing and self-assured 4. They aspire to leadership positions and consider themselves role models for others. The majority believe that reality TV has introduced them to new lifestyles, cultural beliefs and social issues. They feel that they can accomplish anything. Nearly half credit reality television with helping them realize that they are not alone.