In keeping with researchers' proclivity for telling us what we already suspect, in October the Girl Scout Research Institute released results of a survey about the effects of reality TV on tween and teen girls. Their research found that "tween and teen girls who regularly view reality TV accept and expect a higher level of drama, aggression, and bullying in their own lives, and measure their worth primarily by their physical appearance."
For anyone familiar with "reality" TV, this should come as no surprise. It is one of the great ironies of our age that one of the communication media least committed to truth is so committed to "reality." So-called reality TV has become a staple of the media diet for Americans—and other places around the world. These shows began proliferating in the 1990s and exploded over the last decade. And with them have come a host of celebrities who are famous simply for being famous.
So what's the appeal? Why do so many people love watching reality TV? Theories abound. We know we're a curious species and a social one; perhaps the opportunity to peek into the lives of other people is just too much to resist. Perhaps it's simply amusing to watch caricatures that remind us of ourselves and people we know. It can be cathartic to see people behave in ways we know we're capable of behaving but we're too polite to act on. Maybe it's the thrill of vicarious experience—entering into fantasy worlds that seem real without leaving our comfortable sofas. And perhaps we feel better about our own lives when we watch the train wrecks unfolding in New Jersey, in the suburbs of Atlanta, or on an island somewhere.
One Ohio State University study found that the more people are status-oriented, or motivated by a need for a sense of self-importance, the more likely they are to watch and enjoy reality TV. The more they watch the "ordinary" people on reality TV, the better they feel about themselves as superior to others. And the more they perceive those people to be "ordinary," the more they believe that they too are important enough to achieve celebrity status. This study also found that fans of reality TV are likely to be motivated in general by a desire for competition and vengeance. They satisfy this desire by watching others duke it out onscreen.
What's the appeal specifically for young women? The Girl Scout Research Institute study found that "68 percent of girls agree that reality shows 'make me think I can achieve anything in life' and 48 percent that they 'help me realize there are people out there like me.' " So reality TV may reassure them of their own value and normalcy. Perhaps girls at this socially voracious stage in life can't get enough of the unfolding interpersonal dynamics. Maybe the "ordinary" characters on reality TV satisfy their strong need to identify with people they perceive as like them. Maybe they're searching for role models who live the kind of fantasy lives they picture themselves living someday. Or like the status- and vengeance-oriented people mentioned in the Ohio State study, they're trying to satisfy their desires for social status and exercise their burgeoning conflict-resolution skills. Maybe they're simply trying to fit in with their own peers, who are following the story lines and talking about them around their lockers on Friday mornings.