Go channel surfing on any given night of the week and it’s guaranteed that at least one reality television series will be playing.
Today, reality television fans have unlimited viewing options with shows like “Real Housewives” (pick a city), “Jersey Shore,” “Bad Girls Club,” “Toddlers and Tiaras,” and almost all of the shows on networks like Bravo, VH1 and MTV.
In fact, MTV’s baby, “Jersey Shore” has the power to draw over eight million viewers per episode.
Now the average Jane can Tivo into other’s lives—albeit, lives that have been edited and produced to look wilder and crazier than typical reality. Still, reality television has made voyeurism easier than ever.
But, let’s face it: MTV’s viewer demographic is young teens to mid-twenties.
So how are these shows affecting American youth?
“Adults watch [reality shows] because they’re entertained by them; teenagers who watch these shows can be influenced by them,” says Dr. Michael Osit, clinical psychologist and author of “Generation Text: Raising Well-Adjusted Kids in an Age of Instant Everything,” to Meets Obsession.
Theresa Giudice in Bravo’s “Jersey Shore”
“Teenagers today have tremendous access to the world. They’re exposed to a broader scope of behavior than previous generations because of all the access they have—Internet, social networking, texting—it’s a general cultural issue that’s going on.”
Osit, who has been working with children and families for nearly 35 years, says that in the last 8 to 10 years, he’s witnessed a major change in the behavior of both children and their parents. “Younger kids are asking for and getting things that older kids used to get, like cell phones. Drinking seems to be an accepted part of youth culture—so many parents are now buying their teenagers alcohol.”
The most concerning issue about shows like “Jersey Shore,” according to Parent eSource.com,” is the promiscuous sex with random partners that often follows a night of clubbing and binge drinking. […] Despite all of the featured sex with multiple partners, not once on the show is the subject of birth control or other forms of protection mentioned.”
Furthermore, shows like “Jersey Shore” consistently display an alarming amount of sexism and “objectification of women.”
Vinny Guadagnino in MTV’s “Jersey Shore”
How does this treatment of women, juxtaposed with a bombardment of female characters as emotional, manipulative, airheads effect up and coming generations?
“There’s potential for women to lose respect and feminist footing,” says Osit. “I don’t know if adults will change their behavior, but teenagers have the potential to act this way as adults because they’re at the age where they’re looking for behaviors to emulate. They’re searching for who they want to be and, if they’re attracted to people in media, then they’re going to start acting like that.”
“The long-lasting effect of these types of shows is that youth become desensitized to this type of behavior,” says Osit. “The moral fiber of culture is slowly eroding,” especially in regards to sexual behavior, work ethic and how we treat others. “Everyday in my office I ask ‘can you say that differently?’ in regards to kids speaking rudely to authority figure. The heroes on these shows are the one that breaks the rules.”
In a country that praises itself for freedom of speech, where does this leave us?
Is censorship the answer?
Not necessarily. Most parenting sites recommend using these shows as tools to talk to their children about inappropriate behavior.
On the website Parenting Advice Written by Kids, one adolescent seemed to have very grounded sense of the topic. “Everyone likes to party, granted. But on the hit reality show “Jersey Shore,” they are paid to do nothing but party and create drama. With partying comes drinking, mistakes and confusion. I’m sorry, I know I’m 15 and this show is designed to ‘appeal’ to me, but I honestly think MTV is glamorizing a lifestyle of drunken mistakes.”
The driving fact is that censorship rarely works, education and dialogue often times does.
Osit agrees that parents have a lot of control in what their children take away from these shows.
“Another reassuring note is that—especially depending on parenting—if adolescents of today are given the right tools from adults, they’ll essentially grow out of reality television behavior. They’ll return to a more ‘calm,’ ‘normal’ behavior and become more moral and treat people well.”