''Reality TV": Reality Check for Parents
Television Imitates Life
It's 8 o'clock and "reality" rules on the tube and online. A recent episode of Big Brother featured the cast filling out "character questionnaires," asked to name the house members who are the most "two-faced, cowardly, or wishy-washy."
"All this is going to do is hurt peoples' feelings," complained one house member, who talked about throwing the questionnaires onto the BBQ. But of course, she didn't. Another announced in disgust that she'd "had enough" and wanted to leave the show. The list is "mean-spirited and I don't want any part of this." But of course, she stayed.
It's only TV, and it's only a game, but what do kids see when they watch grownups sitting around whining and scheming against each other? Or, for that matter, forming "alliances" and eating rats? You may think shows like Survivor or Big Brother are not "family fare," but the fact is, they air early enough for children and teens to watch, and many do.
Reality TV's Real-Life Lessons
Once upon a time, when Americans fought world wars or battled The Great Depression, entertainment was produced to help us "climb out of the darkness," notes Karen Bohlin, director of the Center for the Study of Ethics and Character at Boston University's School of Education. Today, in the midst of a boom economy, the ever-scheming reality TV star stands in stark contrast to the ever-smiling Shirley Temple of yesteryear. Observers of media culture say parents would be well-advised to pay attention to these sinister messages about character that reality shows convey:
- It's okay to use people.
- It's okay to spend weeks or months without espousing any goals, ideals, or compelling purpose in life, other than to win money.
- It's okay to be a "Peeping Tom," snooping on others' private moments.
- It's okay to lie or cheat in a game in order to win.
Talk About The Shows
Despite concerns about the content of reality shows, Elizabeth Thoman, founder and president of the Center for Media Literacy, believes it's better to watch the programs with children and discuss the content, rather than reach for the clicker. She offers these "talking tips" for parents:
- Point Out Why "Reality TV" Isn't Real. Kids and adults both need to learn how media is "constructed," or put together, Thoman says. With regard to reality TV, parents can help children see that what they're watching is the result of hours and hours of camera footage being edited down to fit into a single episode. That means that producers control how "real" the shows get. How do they decide what to use? What do you think they're leaving out or not showing us? These kinds of questions can help children think about the "unreal" nature of what they're seeing.
- Explain Why Big Networks Love Reality Shows
By age nine or ten, most children can begin to understand the business behind the media business. Tell kids that the networks are using these shows to attract younger viewers, the people advertisers want to reach most. Talk about ratings: "When lots of people watch a particular show, the ratings go up and then the network can charge companies more money to run their commercials. That means that big shows like Survivor make lots of money for the networks."
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