Does reality television foster bullies?

Tim Elmore over at Growing Leaders has asked in a blog post if television cultivates bullies. His rationale is that with all the brutal judging that children can witness now on reality shows such as American Idol or Project Runway, they may be absorbing this hypercritical state and transferring it to their interactions with peers.

I don’t watch those specific shows, but I do watch another reality/competition show, Top Chef, with our children. And we watch it on purpose because we want our children to see people trying–even when there’s a good-sized chance of failure–and how people react to being criticized and judged. The reactions matter: Some “cheftestants” have pouty, blame-other-people responses to their own failures, while others offer up “this was a real learning experience for me.” Our children learn from witnessing this. Life isn’t a thorn-free walk through the garden. People will criticize you, even your best efforts. What matters is how you respond to that criticism.

I don’t see that this show, at least, offers up much for systematic sadism. The adult judges aren’t being harsh just for the sake of harshness. They’re serving up a heaping plate of reality, arighting some cheftestants’ off-kilter view of their own abilities. Applying apt criticism to someone who’s willingly engaged in exposing themselves to it is not a model for bullies.

Elmore refers to our having become conditioned to refereeing those around us, but judgment and criticism are engrained in the human psyche, part of our innate competition with one another, our battle to keep up with or surpass the Joneses on some level or another. We’ve always judged, always criticized, always refereed. If anything, these reality shows are a manifestation of the basics of human nature rather than influencing it, something I think their developers and producers well recognize. While an overall culture of competition and aggression may, in some way, lend countenance to bullying, I don’t think that reality shows offer up a huge influence for people who systematically and persistently try to break down another human being. That’s a far deeper urge than anything Simon Cowell could develop.

People who bully are not wannabe Simon Cowells, wandering the schoolyard looking for someone to critique harshly. They are, whether adult or young person, childish and feeling weak and using their words and actions to exert power over someone they perceive as weaker than they are. That need to feel power far predates reality television.

Based on the flurry of stories I’ve read lately, bullying itself is not on the rise, although there are now more routes to bullying than ever, thanks to the offerings of cyberspace. These urges to feel that sense of power are as old as the human species, at least. What’s different today is that we are recognizing more and more the long-term effects of bullying–on the bully, the victim, and even the bystanders. Some of us, at least, are coming to understand that this long-time aspect of the human condition needs to come to an end.

I don’t think reality shows play a huge role in perpetuating or fostering bullying. Rather, I think that the continued expression of homophobia from public figures and continued offhand dismissal of people with special needs, such as the persistent acceptance of using “retarded” as an epithet, help to keep the environment rich for bullies who target these most-targeted populations. For these groups, they’re not bullied because of a competition. They’re bullied for who they are.

So…what do you think? Do you think reality TV helps to foster our bullying culture?

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About ejwillingham

Sciwriter/editor/autism-ADHD parent. SciMaven @ http://doublexscience.blogspot.com/. I speak my pieces @ http://daisymayfattypants.blogspot.com/ & @ http://thebiologyfiles.blogspot.com/
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9 Responses to Does reality television foster bullies?

  1. goodfountain says:

    I don’t see how a parent could watch the auditions part of American Idol and laugh along with the judges as they mock and ridicule people who are bad singers – and not think that what they are quietly saying to their kids is that it’s okay to make fun of people. That part of the show has always really disturbed me, and then what’s more disturbing is how hilarious people think it is.

    I have never watched any other reality shows (except for Iron Chef every now and then), so I can’t say for certain that reality shows contribute to the bullying culture – but I do believe American Idol does because it’s gives permission to ridicule the less talented.

    • ejwillingham says:

      I haven’t ever seen it, but it sounds like this is ultimately about the parents, not the show, as usual. The show is simply reflecting who we are using a public forum of mockery that’s been available for exorcising our vicious streaks since the time of gladiators. If parents don’t say, “That’s wrong,” then children are gonna think it’s OK. Doesn’t everything ultimately come back to the parents and their own attitudes? From my experience, some parents are utterly unreachable, so you have to angle at the children somehow so that when they’re parents, they’ll turn to their children and say, “That’s not acceptable,” or…they’ll just turned off the damned television.

  2. I think that the whole culture of TV game shows, of which reality TV shows are a spin-off, has gotten much meaner than it was 20 years ago. I can’t stand to watch more than a few minutes of most of the shows because they seem to glorify the most base levels of ridicule and cold mean-spiritedness. It’s possible to give criticism with kindness, respect, and consideration for the feelings of another person; these shows do none of those things.

    To my mind, whether that meanness has always been with us isn’t relevant, and whether parents criticize it really doesn’t matter. The kids watch adults engaging in it, as part of a game, no less, and the kids get the message that the adult world considers that kind of behavior okay. That’s the adult world that kids know they will one day leave their parents to enter. I think it’s absolutely inexcusable for adults to model this kind of behavior, and to encourage other people to laugh at it and join in with it.

    It takes a village to raise a child, not just two parents. If the village is filled with adults being nasty, some children are going to decide to be on the giving end rather than the receiving end, and emulate the adults, knowing that few people will care.

    • ejwillingham says:

      So, the parents can turn off the TV. It is still about the parents and their choices, fundamentally. The world is full of assholes, many of them right there in the village. Parents can (a) not let their children watch these shows or (b) watch with their children and take it as a teaching opportunity. I didn’t say that “meanness” had always been with us; I said that it is inherent human nature to judge, criticize, and feel competitive with those around you, and it is relevant because it’s ingrained. I don’t think that can be excised, but it can be channeled into positive rather than negative applications. Like I said, I have not watched a single episode of American Idol or these other shows, and there is a reason for that. I’m not interested in watching mockery, and I won’t let my children do that, either. Because I’m their parent. I don’t rely on the village to efface what is human nature. It may seem intuitive to think that watching these shows fosters a bullying culture, but I think it’s the other way around: I think our culture sees itself in these shows. The creators of these shows take advantage of what already exists. What exists in our culture right now is an increasing openness about the OKness of being a jerk. One need look no further than the frothing politicos and “angry” drama-queen voters to find that. These reality shows are just our mirror; they don’t create who we are.

  3. I think the television/real world similarities are a cause of a spiral, not a cause and effect scenario. Many things in culture (in my opinion) aren’t as simple as a chicken and egg analogy and come about due to years of feeding off one another in a spiralling effect, increasing each other.

    Shocking behaviour gets results on television. Much like how many people watch auto racing for the crashes, not for the circles and circles they make for a few hours.

    Television has become more and more shocking over the years, allowing more vulgarity, more gore, more rude behaviour than ever before. And it’s due to the publics desire to see it. People love that stuff, ratings go up, rules get pushed back a little more.

    Parents need to realize that they can’t shelter their children from the realities of the world (the harshness) but that doesn’t mean they have to throw them in head first and sink or swim.

    There needs to be some common sense line where children can see SOME of the harsh reality without having to be subjected to what will get the most ratings… which is what most of these reality shows go for.

    The whole television thing wouldn’t even be an issue if parents just found a way to spend more time with their children instead of turning to the television every single evening. The real reality is far more interesting than ‘reality television.’

    Turn off Survivor and pull out a board game. Let your kids bully you around a game of Life and you’ll all have a much better time.

  4. Stuart, you’re absolutely right. There is a reciprocal relationships between popular culture and people within the culture, and each one influences the other. Popular culture reflects, creates, and reinforces existing social attitudes. The values that pervade the culture are both reflected and reinforced by a show like “The Weakest Link,” which is probably the most unvarnished example of social-Darwinism-as-game-show the TV folks have developed yet.

    And I agree that parents need to monitor and turn off the TV. But in an era in which many parents work, and many single parents work more than one job, children are often left alone and discover all kinds of bullying on TV. This is why I feel that it’s very important that all adults take responsibility for what they’re modeling to children.

    • ejwillingham says:

      Rachel…very right. Can a person be very right? I’ve not seen “Weakest Link.” I guess if I’m going to understand the bullying culture better, I’m going to need to watch more television.

      As a friend just noted to me on Twitter in response to my question, “Does reality TV foster a culture or bullying or does a bullying culture facilitate reality TV,” that the typical response to such either/or questions in the context of human behavior is, “Yes.”

  5. Cessie says:

    I’ve watched a lot of these reality tv contests– including Top Chef and Project Runway. And I agree that the critiquing is more about real life than it is about picking on a person over their choices or their shortcomings. The judging in these programs are done by people in the profession– in Project Runway, they’re designers, models, and fashion editors, with a very critical eye. In Top Chef, they’re chefs and “foodies” with discriminating tastes. And the criticism is rarely about the person, or their demeanor, unless it pertains to teamwork and attitude.

    The comment above about American Idol, and the audition sequences, I completely agree with. As a teacher of voice, I don’t feel like the competitive nature of the show lends itself to fostering any sort of self-esteem in a young singer, and I can’t say I’ve watched more than an episode or two of it, since it started. The only time I ever turned it on, I found, to my dismay, that the only person I agreed with was Simon Cowell– the man who was accused of ridiculing singers, and being harsh. But really, he was the most pragmatic of the judges. He knew what would make it in the industry, he was direct with his criticism… like the judges on Project Runway, in the critiques I saw, he was giving a professional opinion. Yes, it’s harsh, and subjective, but so’s the music industry.

    I’m not sure if I see a connection between these programs and bullying. If anything, even despite the competitions on Top Chef and Project Runway, I am struck by the camaraderie, the way the chefs will occasionally step up to help each other (okay, sometimes they throw each other under the bus, too) or the way the designers sometimes serve as an extra pair of hands, or eyes, in a pinch. In the end, these are people with shared interests, and many with similar life experiences.

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