Picture the twists and turns of life commitments, be it work, family or a need to keep up with friends and social bookings. Our daily grind, although rewarding at times, can almost feel relentless - a never-ending rollercoaster of commitments and societal pressures. In this looping pursuit, we often forget something crucial: the human need to hit the pause button. Just to step off to the side-lines for a moment to escape the daily buzz can be a game-changer for our well-being.
Taking a deep breath and reminding ourselves that there's a whole world beyond the corkscrew of the commitments we need to fulfil. In an ever-expanding landscape of our need to relax, our escapism to entertainment reigns supreme, especially reality television. With options of subscriber entertainment streaming services hitting double figures and the average UK household spending around £42 of streaming and satellites services, what impact are the programmes we watch having on our psychological health and wellbeing.
Although some may abstain from admission, latest statistics suggest 70% of UK audiences regularly watch reality television, the need for a peek in to others ‘day to day’ gives a sense of escapism, self-comparison and voyeurism – watching others’ lives for a touch of social connection and distraction from the daily grind. From dating dramas to culinary competitions, reality tv shows captivate audiences with their relatively unscripted glimpses into real people’s lives. Each reality television programme is meticulously edited for a rollercoaster of drama, and cliff-edge choices, decisions and arguments. But beyond the surface of potential manufactured moments lies a fascinating landscape of psychology, a complex interplay of psychological effects, a constant gravity defining plunge where escapism and catharsis intertwine with the ever-present danger of social comparison.
The Ascent of Escapism:
For many, reality TV serves as a welcome escape from our day-to-day commitments. We immerse ourselves in the whirlwind of emotions, vicariously experiencing the thrills of a life, far removed from our own. This temporary disconnect from daily stressors can be cathartic, offering a much-needed drama filled emotional release. Social comparison, though often skewed by the structured editing of a proposed unstructured reality television show, comes into play too. Watching the continual realities of reality stars, and how they deal with break ups, backstabbing and bad bakes, can be strangely comforting, prompting the reassuring thought, "my life isn't that bad." Additionally, for those looking for the thrill of excitement, reality television provides a front-row seat to exotic adventures, showstopping successes, glamorous lifestyles, and whirlwind romances, albeit through the unfiltered yet controlled lens of the camera.
The Plunge of Despair:
However, the escapist allure of reality television comes with potential hidden psychological costs. The constant emotional rollercoaster, carefully orchestrated by skilled editors and producers, can leave viewers drained and on edge. Heightened arousal, powered by manufactured tension and conflict, can mirror and morph into feels of stress and anxiety for the people on the show and ourselves. The paradox of parasocial relationships – a one-sided bond of emotional energy in characters we know primarily through the TV – can trigger our own anxieties, stresses, and uncertainties about their choices and success in the reality television shows. Furthermore, the portrayals of others success can elicit feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem, particularly when viewers engage in unhealthy social comparison. The fear of missing out (FOMO) also rears its ugly head, as we see others living exciting, exhilarating and occasionally financially rewarding lives, leading to dissatisfaction with our own.
Navigating the Psychological Twists:
The impact of reality TV on our mental well-being depends heavily on our individual factors, viewing habits, and life context. Those prone to negative social comparison, or with low self-esteem are more likely to experience challenging effects. Similarly, excessive or binge-watching these shows can exacerbate the downsides, while critical and mindful viewing can mitigate them. For someone facing personal challenges, the escapism offered by reality television may be beneficial, while worsening the emotional state in others.
Mindful Consumption for Mitigating Costs:
So, is the rollercoaster of reality television an ascent or plunge in to our psychological health and wellbeing? The answer, as with most things in psychological debates, is both. By adopting responsible viewing habits and highlighting topics for social discussion, an escape from the corkscrews of commitments can maximise the benefits of taking time to unwind, while minimising the anxiety inducing stresses that our own lives may thrust to the forefront. Maintaining a healthy balance of time in and away from reality television – remembering it remains just one form of entertainment, and not an all-encompassing dominant force in our lives.
Fundamentally, actively understanding the psychological highs and lows of reality television’s appeal, empowers us to make informed choices about our viewing habits. By enjoying the ascent of positive escapism and emotional release with the awareness of the potential plunge of unrealistic expectations and social comparison, we can ensure that these shows remain just that – entertainment – without compromising our psychological health and well-being.
Dr Rachael Molitor