My impressionable teenage years coincided with the rise of reality TV, though mostly I took from it lessons about how to absolutely, 100% not live my life. I learned that undercooked risotto isn’t worth having an aneurysm over, that socialites aren’t cut out for agricultural labor, and that I never want to be naked nor afraid on national television. I did in college have a Jersey Shore-themed birthday party, complete with a Gatorade cooler full of “Ron Ron Juice,” and for that I am eternally sorry.
In summation, reality TV shows are generally not considered a model for good behavior. But public health experts in the U.K. warn that the near-constant drinking and smoking on such shows are “normalizing” that type of behavior for kids, to say nothing of the poolside screaming matches and hair-pulling.
Researchers from the University Of Nottingham published their analysis of 5,219 reality TV show clips in the Journal Of Public Health, concluding that “The popularity of these programs with young people, and consequent exposure to tobacco and alcohol imagery, represents a potentially major driver of smoking and alcohol consumption.” Of the 5,219 one-minutes reality TV clips they examined, researchers found alcohol appeared in 42% of the clips and 100% of all full episodes analyzed. Tobacco was present in 18% of all full episodes and 2% of the one-minute interval clips.
Researchers say the rates of substance use on reality TV are higher than on other types of primetime shows. Broadcasting laws in the U.K. bar tobacco or alcohol use from shows aimed at kids, and discourages their glamorization in shows that air before 9 p.m. But as The Guardian notes, many reality TV shows air after 9 p.m. or are available via streaming apps and online, meaning kids and teenagers have easy access.
Public health officials have been sounding the Helen Lovejoy about bad influences on TV screens since, I’m sure, the dawn of TV screens. Generally, I’d argue that kids are smarter than we give them credit for and just because they see a cowboy smoke a cigarette on TV doesn’t make them rush out to buy a pack. But reality TV does seem different in that, for as scripted and bizarre as it is, it is allegedly “reality” and becomes a stand-in for what “fun” adult behavior looks like. That in and of itself is a terrifying thought, and all the more reason to only let teens watch baking shows and Queer Eye.