Dr Richard C. Woolfson
Opinions vary regarding the worth of reality TV programmes. Some say that they are excellent entertainment that shows real people in real situations, while others say they are simply a cheap substitute for expensive TV drama. Whatever the issues are, reality shows dominate our TV-watching diet, with programmes ranging from people living in a house together to surviving in a jungle together, from attending an army boot camp to fighting their way up the corporate ladder.
And young children are just as fascinated as adults by these programmes. A child quickly identifies with one of the characters who he adopts as his “favourite”, and he becomes gripped by this individual’s progress from one week to the next.
It all seems harmless fun, you might think, and to some extent you’d be right if you took that view. Compared to routine TV programmes, reality TV doesn’t have gangsters shooting each other, blood spilling onto the streets, bombs going off or any other form of major disaster. So there are less scenes unsuitable for the minds of impressionable young viewers.
But that certainly doesn’t mean all reality TV is good for your child. In order to keep the ratings high, some of the programmes have increased the sexual content and have encouraged increasingly outrageous behaviour from participants.
This means that fewer and fewer reality shows are appropriate for your grade-schooler. If you have any doubts at all about the content, keep the TV tuned to another channel at these times.
It’s also worth explaining to your child that although the reality TV programme uses real people (rather than actors), the situations portrayed in them are not entirely “real life”. For example, a group of people don’t live in a sealed house with challenges every few hours and face a confessional-style video camera; and a group of adults don’t go around the world trying to out-race each other. Help your child understand that these are artificially-created situations solely for the purpose of entertaining viewers. They don’t contain actors, but that doesn’t mean they portray the real world. They are also manufactured and manipulated.
In addition, you could point out that these programmes encourage viewers to take some pleasure from other people’s misfortunes. Viewers are typically delighted when someone is dropped from the contest, leaving other preferred candidates for the next round. The viewers (and the producers) are pleased when something goes wrong, for instance, when the contestants start crying or fall out with each other.
Just as your child wouldn’t like people to laugh at her when she is upset, she should be discouraged from laughing at other people’s sadness or misery.
The chances are that last night’s reality TV is the talk of the school playground today. Your child wants to be able to take part in that conversation, so that she can be one of the crowd. She may feel left out if she can’t join in because she is barred from watching such programmes by you. Try to reach a compromise with her. Having made sure that the content is suitable for a child this age, reach an agreement with her about the amount of her viewing time for reality TV.
When your child is five or six years old, no more than an hour a week of watching reality TV should be enough. That will satisfy your child’s hunger for these sorts of programmes, while still leaving him time for homework, after-school activities, play and other TV programmes that are more appropriate for her age group.
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