Experts say being on reality shows such as MasterChef can be traumatic for the contestants, but they also can have negative effects on people who watch.
Jessie Glenn is an anomaly. She’s the rare example of a reality television “survivor” who slipped through the cracks and escaped her experience without ever signing a contract —leaving her completely and totally free to discuss that experience in its aftermath.
This is something she now fully intends to do.
Glenn was a contestant on the third season of “MasterChef,” the same season that featured runner-up Joshua Marks. He was the man who suffered serious psychological issues following his appearance on the show and died from suicide a year later.
In a recent Salon article about her experience on the show, Glenn described her time as, “An experiment in power and submission and subversion over which I had no control.”
She described wranglers set on increasing intensity and drama between contestants as well as a psychiatrist who claimed to work on all the Fox shows (and didn’t take kindly to her question about the “do no harm” clause of medical training).
She also talked about the escalating levels of traumatic stress other contestants experienced based on how long they were on the show.
You may be wondering why Glenn is able to be so forthcoming about her experience in reality television when other past contestants seem so guarded in describing the same.
The simple truth is, someone on the show screwed up.
When Glenn asked a million questions about the contract that was presented to her, somewhere in the shuffle they failed to realize she never actually signed it.
“And it was a loooooong contract,” Glenn recently told Healthline.
Reality television has become symbolic of our current culture.
A growing number of children list “reality TV star” or “famous” as their future career goals over more traditional choices.
Oregon State University reports that 68 percent of people ages 18 to 29 watch and love reality television.
President Donald Trump gained notoriety as a reality television star.
Reality television isn’t necessarily new. PBS had a documentary in 1973 titled “An American Family” that followed a Santa Barbara family for seven months.
However, it’s fair to say the rise of reality television over the past decade and a half has been astronomical. In 2015, The Washington Post reported on how “Survivor” really changed everything for reality television, catapulting the genre forward and leading to the more than 300 reality television offerings we have today.
But how real is this reality anyway?
According to Mike Fleiss, creator and executive producer of “The Bachelor,” not very.
In 2012, he told the “Today” show that 70 to 80 percent of what people see on reality television is fake.
“They’re loosely scripted. Things are planted. Things are salted into the environment so things seem more shocking,” Fleiss said.
What we’re seeing isn’t actually real. It’s dramatized reality where contestants are goaded into the most dramatic reactions, and storylines are set up well in advance.
After her experience on “MasterChef,” Glenn has become skeptical of it all. And while “MasterChef” might not strike viewers as the most dramatic of reality television offerings, Glenn’s behind-the-scenes account paints a different picture entirely.
While what contestants are put through during the filming of these reality shows is certainly worth exploring, the other problem comes with how viewers perceive the “reality” they’re being presented with.
This is particularly important among young viewers who may not have as strong an ability to recognize the fabricated drama.
In 2011, the Girl Scouts organization released a survey that found that more than half the girls viewing reality television believed what they were seeing was “mainly real and unscripted.”
“Kids watching television tend to accept it as a reflection of reality anyway,” Dr. David Hill, a pediatrician who is program director of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Communications and Media, told Healthline. “Until they’re about 8 years old, it’s very difficult for them to do any significant reality testing. That’s why kids under that age are much more accepting of Santa Claus. Kids already struggle with testing what’s real or not, and then reality television is advertised as being real.”
This is a problem, according to Nancy Molitor, PhD, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, because kids often become desensitized to what they are seeing.
“There is this appeal to these shows that comes down to making people feel superior to others,” Molitor told Healthline. “You see contestants being laughed at, rejected, voted off, made fun of. And watching these shows makes kids feel superior as well. It’s reinforcing all kinds of negative behavior that we don’t want to see in our kids, including relational aggression.”
The Girl Scouts study found much of this to be true. In fact, girls who were regular consumers of reality television were much more likely to believe that gossiping was a normal part of female friendships than their counterparts who didn’t watch reality television.
And this is just the effect on the young viewers we’re talking about. What about those children who actually play a role in reality television shows?
“I think it is absolutely unconscionable,” Glenn told Healthline about shows like “MasterChef Junior.” “Gordon Ramsay is an actor. He is violently aggressive on ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ selectively aggressive on ‘MasterChef,’ and mostly friendly on ‘MasterChef Junior.’ But the way the scenes are shot and the lead up and tension is almost identical between the show for kids and the one for adults.”
Over the years, shows featuring kids (for example, “Kate Plus 8” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”) have raised a lot of eyebrows, with plenty of experts weighing in on just how unhealthy that exposure can be.
Meanwhile, even without the reality television contract, many children are seeking out that fame themselves online.
“It dovetails with society and the emphasis on self,” Molitor told Healthline. “Heavy viewers of reality television tend to have the most Facebook friends and the biggest Instagram followings. They’ve grown up with promoting themselves and their friends. They think nothing of being on camera. To them, reality shows are a natural extension. It’s just part of their culture. They don’t see it as weird at all.”
But all hope isn’t lost.
“Reality shows are here to stay,” Molitor said. “But there can be some positive effects as well.”
She explained how people initially thought the MTV shows “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant” were glamorizing teen pregnancy. But then the teen pregnancy rate actually dropped, and studies came out positioning these shows as part of the solution.
“A large percentage of the teens who had watched these shows felt they had educated them on the difficulties of teen pregnancy,” Molitor explained.
“There are a lot of psychologists that think the hoarding shows have helped raise awareness about how common it is and how to get help for it, as well,” she added. “These shows can have a positive effect.”
Hill explained that controlling the messages teens take away from reality viewing really comes down to the parents.
“I think it always comes back to helping your child filter what he or she is seeing through your own sort of moral lens,” he said. “Start with questions. Ask how they interpret what they’ve just seen. That can give you tremendous insight into where your kids are in their moral development and how they interpret the world around them. Then you can use that as an opener for more questions. ‘How would you react in that situation? What would you do?’ Parents can really use these shows as openers to the more important conversations. This is your opportunity to provide context.”
It’s advice Michelle Flynn of South Carolina has been employing for a while now … to an extent.
As a mother to a 12-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy who both consume reality television, she’s found it’s a fine line to walk. And not all shows have made the cut.
“We had to put a lock on the television for anything not rated PG,” Flynn told Healthline. “I caught my daughter watching ‘Say Yes to the Dress,’ ‘Hoarders,’ ‘Dance Moms,’ ‘Toddlers & Tiaras’ … all inappropriate in my opinion. But we do watch ‘The Amazing Race’ together. And they like ‘Mystery Diagnosis,’ ‘River Monsters,’ and a lot of the cooking shows.”
So, what’s wrong with some of those shows?
“My concern is that my daughter’s brain isn’t yet developed enough to understand the difference between ‘good TV’ and being a good person,” Flynn said. “On ‘Dance Moms,’ for instance, the women do not treat the kids or each other with respect, so it doesn’t meet my morality clause. I also think that kids’ minds are too malleable and if they see inappropriate behavior enough they will become desensitized to how bad that behavior is and think it’s OK or cool to emulate.”
But Flynn likes watching the competition shows like ‘The Amazing Race’ with her children because it does leave room for conversations about how not to react under stress.
“When topics or events are depicted that I find are not in line with how I would expect them to respond in a similar situation, we talk about it,” she said. “I ask what they would do differently, and why they think the individual on TV responded the way they did. It’s nice to see real people make mistakes and then apologize or express remorse. And even those who try to justify their behavior are good to talk about, because none of us are saints. It all leads to conversations I like to treat as learning experiences.”
It’s a strategy Molitor would agree with.
“These shows aren’t going anywhere,” she said. “The programming is lucrative and cheap to produce. So for parents, it’s not necessarily about banning these shows. Instead, parents should be talking to kids about what they’re seeing. You have to sit them down and help them understand that it’s entertaining but it’s not real life. And it’s not OK to behave in the way these contestants often do. The bullying, the talking behind people’s backs, the cruelty. Kids can relate to that, to people not acting fair, and it really can lead to some important conversations.”