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.
Regardless of the appeal, this is what much of reality TV teaches our girls:
Happiness can be found in a shopping mall.
Relationships are all about drama.
It's okay to talk about your friends behind their backs.
Do anything you can to get attention.
Sex is the best way to get what you want.
Getting drunk (regularly) is normal and healthy.
For the young, actions don't have long-term consequences.
The more outrageous you are, the more popular you'll be.
And according to the Girl Scout Research Institute survey, "a girl's value is based on how she looks."
None of this is new. These are the same old messages in a new package. What makes this package particularly insidious is that we label it "reality" and young people, whose desperate attempts to define themselves in relationship to the world around them make them vulnerable, actually believe it is real. Just because something really happened doesn't make it reality. True reality would be the most boring show on TV. Instead, these TV personalities are playing themselves in pursuit of celebrity, on shows cleverly edited to keep us addicted. Young viewers can't help but be confused.
This kind of confusion (born of deceit) is nothing new. It started in the Garden of Eden: "One day [the serpent] asked the woman, 'Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?'
" 'Of course we may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,' the woman replied. 'It's only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God said, "You must not eat it or even touch it; if you do, you will die."
" 'You won't die!" the serpent replied to the woman. 'God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.'
"The woman was convinced. She saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her" (Genesis 3:1–6).
Embedded in Satan's temptation of Eve was the suggestion that what she thought was true was not. She was missing out on something. She had the opportunity to discover reality. She bought into the lie and bit into death.
Here's true reality:
"We don't look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever" (2 Corinthians 4:18).
"We are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).
"Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God's right hand" (Colossians 3:1).
This is what our young women need, just as we need constant reminders of the truth of what we cannot see. Rather than view life through the many manmade lenses that show what people want us to believe, we must be set apart by our determination to view life through the lens of what God tells us is true. Through this lens we can discern the truth about what is and isn't real in our world, what will and won't last, what is worth building our lives around. And the young women in our lives, who see us more clearly than we might see ourselves, will find hope in our example.