As Canada approaches the mid-way point of the summer, seasonal reality TV programming is well underway. Most prominently, the introduction of the hit reality series “Love Island” to Canadians started on July 9, which originally was created in the U.K., but whose overwhelming success prompted international copies in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Australia, Norway, and Sweden.
Reality TV continues to be commonly accepted as potentially vapid and non-educational, but still nothing more than harmless entertainment, and maybe something quick to watch after work. However, what the majority of its viewers may not be aware of is the potential for serious mental health consequences for the participants, and a skewed view of reality for the audience.
Love Island has already received backlash in the U.K. for its normalized depiction of vulgar language, abusive behaviour, and unrealistic body portrayals, all of which can prove detrimental to a viewer’s future choices and actions. For example, reality TV in general is believed to increase insecurities about one’s appearance which could lead to body dysmorphia and unnecessary cosmetic procedures. As well, researchers looked at the appearance of alcohol in Love Island, and found that it appeared in all 112 episodes and also in 2,212 one-minute clips, which made up 42% of all clips that were studied. The creators of Love Island also decided to stop featuring smoking after its heavy depiction in the 2017 UK series led to backlash. Public health experts are concerned that reality shows like Love Island are a driving force in encouraging children and young people to smoke or drink under age, by showing participants who regularly engage in both, without experiencing health repercussions and while seeming to have a lot of fun.
The negative side of reality TV does not end there however, as two past Love Island contestants took their own lives after appearing on the show, which launched a British parliamentary inquiry into reality TV, in regards to whether or not participants were receiving adequate support after appearing on these programs. While Love Island producers have said that they will increase psychological support for contestants after they leave the show, which will include eight therapy sessions, training on how to handle social media, and financial management support, it is still unclear if this will be enough. It is already evident that on a daily basis, pressure related to their now booming social media profiles continue to pose a severe impact on their mental health. Former reality TV contestant Kevin Wendt describes his personal experience of how reading a few negative comments online “can really ruin [his] day and it can really push [him] into a depression. And [he] found [himself] to be pretty depressed.” Producers should continue to be held under scrutiny for the quality of their after-care, their mental health support, and their training for handling social media, as the duty to protect the participants must be placed on them.
On the other hand however, this is due to a perpetuated culture that condones celebrity worship when the celebrity is in favour (e.g. Beyonce), while also believing that because celebrities are in the public eye, that they should be able to withstand all criticism that comes their way. Like in cancel culture, it is blasé to post any opinionated, objectifying comment about reality TV figures, as they are things to be admired when they are beloved, but are also things to be torn down unfeelingly when they are not loved anymore. While Honey Langcaster-James, reality TV psychologist and consultant, explains that it is natural for people to be interested in the private lives of celebrities, people also forget that celebrities are real human beings like them, who have real feelings.
Appearing on reality TV should not be a life sentence to future mental health issues and vitriolic comments on every single post on one’s Instagram page, and it is up to the producers and the audience to create a healthier environment and bring reality TV back to its roots of simple entertainment.