Reality TV and Teen Health

The Kaiser Family Foundation just published a paper entitled "The "Reality" of Health: Reality Television and the Public Health" that explores common health-related themes in the scores of reality TV shows available each day, as well as possible implications for viewers.

For those of you who are not "reality" TV (RTV) fanatics, their ratings suggest they hold considerable allure for millions of viewers from all demographic groups, in particular, preteens, adolescents, and young adults. The critics of RTV believe that they stress the importance of money, fame and beauty as well as promote meanness, casual sex, alcohol abuse, and bad language. The industry, on the other hand, suggests that RTV can inspire people to change their lifestyle by losing weight or giving up smoking, and provides "everyday" people as role models instead of super stars.

The nature of these shows makes viewers believe that RTV is "real" versus scripted, and that the actors are actually people like themselves, that they can identify with, making it more likely that values, attitudes, as well as behavior, will be influenced by the messages provided.

Reality shows considered in this paper included:

Lifestyle transformation shows
• The Biggest Loser
• Cold Turkey
• Honey We're Killing the Kids
• Weighing In

Makeover shows
• Dr. 90210
• Extreme Makeover
• Plastic Surgery: Before and After

Medical miracle shows
• Miracle Workers
• Mystery Diagnosis
• Untold Stories of the ER

The messages these shows convey are not meant to be educational, but are entertainment, and therefore still focus on being "hot," as the way to succeed, how wonderful health professionals are, and that the outcomes always outweigh the risks of the procedures, which of course, on RTV never fail.

The possible implications of these shows for audience awareness and knowledge however, are unlimited. Some health organizations have been successful in working with TV producers to bring us episodes about Osteogenesis, HIV, and diabetes. The web sites associated with these shows can also provide reliable and accurate health information about smoking and obesity, and bring attention to diseases and health behavior.

On the other hand, they may also create very unreasonable expectations in viewers, particularly teenagers, who may not have the media literacy skills to know that "reality" TV is not "real." Teens need to hear that there are no "magic" solutions to health problems and teens need help understanding that any health behavior change requires, knowledge, motivation, and support to bring about lifestyle changes that can be maintained.

Photo credit: hfb

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