The Reality TV Obsession: A Psychological Investigation
By Psychiatrist and Addiction Specialist Reef Karim
Are we all becoming obsessed with Reality TV? Seriously, think about it…
For some, it’s being on the show. It’s their 15 minutes of pure,
exhibitionistic experience with fantasies of fame, stardom or at a
minimum…popularity. Perhaps it’s an attempt to move up their social
standing or a conscious or unconscious attempt to gain the attention
they so desperately needed but never received in their developmental
For others, it’s watching the show. It’s a voyeuristic digestion of
“reality” while identifying with real life characters who openly
display their eccentricities and/or pathology across our television
screens. We watch sex appeal, flirtation, jealousy, rage, competition,
conflict, anxiety, shame, impulsivity, hedonism, intoxication,
narcissism, sex… the list goes on and on. In a way, it’s much safer to
watch it play out on television than to experience it ourselves. And
their lies the potential problem. Is reality television just
entertainment or does it have a deeper psychological effect on us?
Unless you’ve been living in a cave the last decade (and I think
even the Taliban knows about “Survivor” and “Big Brother), you’ve
undoubtedly been exposed to this global phenomenon.
From a psychological perspective, reality television is fascinating. It
makes the “fantasy” of celebrity status accessible to anyone –
particularly if you’re willing to put it all out there. But, at what
price? As a psychiatrist, addiction specialist and relationship
therapist, I’ve been faced with many questions about the psychological
impact of media and specifically reality television. As such, I decided
to write this article and I’ve listed five questions I repeatedly get
1) How do reality show participants deal with the “withdrawal” effect when the cameras are shut off?
I’ve interviewed many reality show participants and the “withdrawal”
effect makes sense. When you’re basically “exposing” yourself mentally
(and for some people – physically) for weeks at a time with constant
cameras, crews, producers, experts and sometimes fans giving you
constant attention and then suddenly it all abruptly ends, how do you
deal with that? The answer: Aftercare Participants should continue on
with treatment (if that was the focus of the show) or at a minimum,
there should be a therapist brought in (during taping or after) to work
with the participants. We need to realize that “Reality TV” does have a
psychological impact on its participants.
2) Are Reality TV participants screened?
Obviously, every participant is “cast” on reality television shows.
There are shows that utilize psych testing (a battery of written tests
and sometimes interviews that are scored and can help evaluate one’s
psychological health) which can be useful for screening. But, what are
you screening for? If you screen out anyone who’s got a personality
problem (narcissistic, borderline, histrionic) or poor coping skills, a
producer may ask “well… then how do you get good television?” Reality
television participants have occasionally had bad outcomes and perhaps
screening for a significant psychiatric
history or substance dependence history (like quite a few current shows
do) would be helpful to avoid worsening their symptoms due to an acute
stressor they may not be equipped to handle. If the show is about mental
health or addiction, then a strong support staff and aftercare is imperative.
3) Can Reality TV be damaging to someone’s mental health?
The answer is absolutely “yes”. If an individual is
mentally/psychologically unprepared for the potential humiliation or
competition or adoration that will be quickly be put upon them, it
could have negative effects on their psyche. We’ve heard of mental
breakdowns and even an occasional suicide after a reality television
show finishes taping. Now, it’s much more likely that those individuals
had predisposed mental health conditions but we can’t negate the stress
of doing a show and/or not having aftercare as a great concern for
certain individuals. Additionally, screening out major mental health disorders or major substance use disorders is very important.
And for those people watching at home, the hope is they don’t just live
life vicariously through reality television participants. If an
individual doesn’t need stimulation or activity in their own lives
because they’re getting it on television (reality or not), that’s a
4) What kinds of people are attracted to reality television?
Some people will argue that you have to “have some kind of problem going on” in order to want to be on a reality show – a personality disorder,
an attachment problem from childhood, a desperate need to be famous,
etc. I don’t necessarily believe that. Although there’s no doubt that
some individuals are feeding their inner troubles by going on a reality
show, there are other participants on shows for the money or for
competition or they’re trying to jump start an acting or hosting career
and some people just want to have fun and help people through the
medium of television.
5) Can a Reality TV show be a good thing for its participants and viewers?
Although most reality shows play on our sensationalistic thirst for
sex, competition and conflict, we sometimes learn from these shows. We
might learn more about addiction or mental health or running a company
or we might get more motivated to start dance classes. The shows could
have a positive effect on our lives if they motivate us to actually go
out and learn a new skill or read about a subject or get help for a
friend or family member.
But we have to keep things in perspective. Our society has changed
over the last decade. We’re now much more of an ADHD, distractible,
novelty seeking, numb, over-stimulated, high tech society and we’re
paying for it with our mental health. As one of my friends so
eloquently says, “you always gotta pay, one way or another”. Although
our technology is beyond impressive and changing every day, we are
suffering in another way – our divorce rates are up; our family unity
is down; our emotional skills in dealing with anger, conflict and
anxiety are… not so good… and most importantly our ability to
connect with each other authentically has been seriously challenged.
Personally, I have a problem with a few reality shows (particularly
those dealing with kids because I don’t think kids are really mentally
prepared for what they’re experiencing ) but overall I believe reality
shows could do some good – they don’t have to just be sensationalistic
– they could also be educational.
The way to improve reality television is to make it more “real” with
more experts. The more authentic we can make reality programming, the
more motivating and/or educational it can be. At one time, the average
television producer thought reality television was “just a phase”. Well
folks, it looks like it’s going to be here for quite a while. So we
might as well try and make it more credible.
Experts can consult, create or produce shows that help people
develop insight, coping skills and better functioning through
instruction, expert treatment and experience. As life is all about
human connectedness and passion, perhaps the voyeuristic nature of
reality television could help motivate us to be better people.
One can always dream…
Dr. Reef Karim
“A great distracter is seeing someone else’s emotional pain so we don’t have to think of our own.”
Dr. Reef Karim
Article courtesy of: Behavioral Health Central: An Excellent Resource