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Is Reality TV Making You Smarter?

Recent studies have shown that we can actually learn a lot from watching our favourite reality stars.

HayU screen
Shutterstock, T. Schneider

We have all heard the comments that watching reality TV numbs your brain or that it is trashy TV. But what if these comments are wrong and come from a place of ignorance?

Some of the smartest people I know live and breathe reality TV, but why? Is it because of the brain-numbing entertainment? How easy it is to watch after a long hard day? Or because of how little attention you have to pay to the plot.

Reality shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians and The Real Housewives allow us to see how different people and societies live without any hard research. And even better it is research you can do from the comfort of your own home in the comfiest clothes you own. 

The Birth Of Reality TV

It is said that reality TV started in the early ’70s with the show An American Family. This show followed the Loud Family in their day-to-day life and was a sneak peek into the typical ‘American Dream’ family. All was not what it seemed and for the first time, people saw the cracks behind the idea of the perfect suburban family. 

Promotion poster for An American Family
50th Anniversary post for An American Family (Youtube, TelevisionVanguard)

An American Family drew in more than 10 million viewers a week and showed the reality of the American dream. The Loud Family had 5 kids, a luxurious house, a swimming pool, and multiple cars but they weren’t happy and on the brink of divorce. 

Which posed the question: what really is the American Dream? 

This was the first time America saw the behind-the-scenes of the dream they have been sold their entire lives. It started debates around divorce and broke down the taboo of ending a marriage.  An American Family also started conversions around the LGBTQ+ community and HIV.

Lance Loud is said to be the first openly gay television character. His being a part of this show and being openly himself allowed the general public to see gay people in a neutral light. It allowed the public to see a gay person as a person, not their sexuality or illness. 

In the new age of reality TV, it is all about who is the richest or prettiest, but before this people loved reality TV as it allowed you to see real people. It was a look into the average person’s life. 

But now with social media and the constant need for fame and perfection, reality has strayed away from its values of showing true reality. 

How Reality TV Dominates Our Lives

When you think of reality TV in the modern day your mind goes straight to shows like Love Island and  Selling Sunset. But reality TV would not be what it is now without the talent competition shows of the late ’90s and early 2000s. 

The entertainment landscape is dominated by reality TV stars even if you don’t think it. Star singers like Harry Styles, Beyoncé, and Britney Spears all found their fame on these talent shows. 

In the early age of reality TV, there was a clear purpose to the shows but this cannot be said in this new age of streaming. There are countless reality TV shows which are a copy and past of each other disguised as franchises such as the Kardashians and Below Deck.

The Kardashians on a red carpet
Cast of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” At the premiere of “The Cheetah Girls: One World. (Shutterstock, S_Bukley)

How much substance is there to these shows and do they provide good to our society? Studies have shown that reality TV is the cause of the rise in body anxiety and has skewed our perception of romantic relationships.

Paired with social media these stars control every part of our culture from fashion to language. Beauty standards are ever-changing because of the constant exposure to unrealistic standards on the TV and phone screen. 

These unrealistic standards have been presented as reality due to stars like the Kardashian’s who have been the upholders of beauty for the last 10 years. But recently, even they have been struggling to uphold this image with Kylie Jenner breaking down on The Kardashians. 

With all the negative connotations it is hard to think that there is some good in reality TV, but there are actually many.

The Good In The Bad

This genre is so popular because it is so easy to watch and becomes a mind-numbing comfort blanket. After a hard day, you want something light and easy, which is what every reality TV show does, it is there for comfort and entertainment. 

Yet, this easy watching is making you socially smarter. Through watching The Great British Bake Off and America’s Next Topmodel we slowly start to become experts in that field. We judge the cakes or models as if we are the judges despite having no prior knowledge of that industry. 

We also get the opportunity to see other careers and become experts in any niche we want to. But also live lives we never thought we could have and be part of a select group. Something we all crave. 

Research from Psychology Today shows that psychologically we feel better about ourselves when we are a part of a group. If that group is full of beautiful socialites, it makes up for the childhood insecurities of not being cool enough or not pretty enough. 

From reality TV we also learn about how and why people act, for example The Circle.

Reality TV Stars as Activists

Similarly to An American Family, the hit dating show has opened discussions on almost everything from politics to disabilities. In 2022, Love Island had its first-ever deaf contestant Tasha Ghouri. She opened up discussions about BSL (British Sign Language) being taught in schools and taught the public how to help deaf people.

Tasha has continued to raise awareness with her podcast Superpowers which gives a platform to disabled people and their families. She has also released a romance book with a deaf main character.

Love Island Contestent speaking to the camera
Tasha Ghouri on Love Island (Youtube, Love Island)

Tasha has completely changed the way people think about deafness. She has made the space for discussions on something that would be ignored if it wasn’t for her. 

Although the show itself might not be the most educating it is the stars that make us smarter and allow us to learn more about difficult topics. It is what they do with that platform is what makes a difference. 

So Does Reality Tv Make You Smarter?

There is good and bad to everything in life and it is important to have that balance. Reality TV allows us to escape the worst moments and for 40 minutes we can become someone else. 

The show itself is not the cause for the rise in poor mental health but rather the stars and how they use their platform. Each show is simply a platform and if given to the wrong people this can lead to problems.

In the streaming age, there seems to be little care for the content but rather a focus on producing stars. Especially those who will have their own show or become a cultural icon. 

Casting agents need to focus on who they are given the platform. As well as what they will do well with platform.

Reality stars like Tasha Ghouri and Lance Loud are examples who have chosen to use their platform for good. During their time on their shows, they broke stereotypes and helped start difficult conversations. 

Reality TV opens up a whole new world to us that was once inaccessible. We can see how our favourite stars live and become experts in new fields. We can be anything we want from chefs, models, to even F1 drivers! 

It should be celebrated how much we can learn about culture, careers, and psychology from watching these ‘mind-numbing’ shows. There is a taboo surrounding reality TV that is stopping people from learning more. 

Written By

Freelance music journalist who has experience in a newsroom, radio studio and social media. I am currently finishing my Broadcast Journalism degree at the University of Winchester.

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