Manipulative or Reality TV?

Young children are quickly switching from watching cartoons, to watching “reality” shows. Khurram Rasool takes a closer look at what this could mean for your children.

She’s glued to the TV and she’s biting her fingernails. Fifth standard student Saara Afzal almost feels her heart skip a beat as she waits for the results to be announced. Surprisingly, the eleven-year-old is worried about whether her favorite contestant will make it to the next round of a dance reality show Just Dance. Saara is one among many Kashmiri children who choose to watch a “reality” show instead of programming designed for their age group—such as cartoons. 

This trend has led to concern about the effects such programs have on children. Young children who would otherwise be engaged in running around and playing outdoors now willingly choose to sit transfixed in front of the television screen, watching one reality show or the other. Parents complain that the days their children would drool over Cartoon Network for hours are long gone. Cartoons are pass? and “reality” shows are in—where they showcase everything but the reality itself. Saara says, “I prefer to watch more of reality shows. They are interesting and we learn about many things.” She adds, “I have learned a couple of new dance forms simply from watching dance reality shows.”

There has been such a major influx of reality shows on television that it’s perhaps not too difficult for a child to come across multiple variations of such programming as they flip from one channel to another—even for those who don’t watch TV too often. According to some “reality” shows encourage immoral behavior.  “The explicit content in reality shows is even more deleterious than that of scripted series, because children know it is real,” said a critic.
“My two daughters are addicted to these reality shows. At first I didn’t think much about it, but now it’s taking a toll on their studies and their behavior,” says Asma, a concerned mother. She opines that most “reality” shows are likely to set a bad example on children, including her own. “They may tend to pick up things they see on television. These reality shows are having a negative effect on children’s behavior, making them immature and arrogant,” she adds.

The entertainment industry is constantly looking for new innovations, and new strategies to increase the TRPs. Lately, the “reality” TV format of programming has broken the monotony found on TV. Moreover, “reality” shows in India are seen as a welcome break for audiences, who were tired of watching endless “Saas-Bahu” sagas that were omnipresent on Indian television. Today, the “reality” show format can include programming that highlights singing, acting, modeling and even parenting—and their popularity growing by the day.

In the midst of all this, the young, impressionable minds of children are the ones affected the most.  To this, Faiza Parveen, a student counselor at a local school says, “Children are still developing their sense of judging between right and wrong. And that’s why these children have a tendency to believe in whatever they see on their TV screens. They instinctively try to emulate the protagonists.” Parveen fears that this could become dangerous, “both to their moral values as well as to their lives as a whole.”

Studies indicate that “reality” shows have more of an immediate and longer lasting effect on children as compared to conventional programming. Such shows promote a competitive element, and often unethicalmeans of reaching the top. There is usually an element of participants deceiving each other, and engaging in outrageous dares or antisocial games. Shows such as Emotional Atyachaar, KhatronKeKhiladiand Roadies often incorporate such elements. In the same vein, last year a game show on Star Plus called SachKa Samna was taken off air by the government for showing “unethical and corrupt content,” harmful for the innocent minds and unacceptable to various sections of the society.

Children who watch “reality” shows are reportedly more likely to suffer from the ill effects of watching such programming. An Australian study (name the study, or who conducted the study) reveals, “children who watch reality programming are significantly more likely to associate wealth, popularity and beauty as factors that contribute to happiness.” It is quite evident that these values are often held in high regard by many participants in “reality” shows. Furthermore, shows such as Fear Factor include contestants engaging in dangerous and sometimes unthinkable stunts—and these inspire the younger viewers to attempt the same.

SabiyaMushtaq, a mother of three says she is concerned about this issue. “No parent would want their children to watch these vulgar shows that use abusive languages and explicit scenes. I would suggest that such shows be telecast after primetime; after 11pm,” she said.

Children are not just passive observers of these shows. In many instances they become the participant as well. However, not all “reality” shows involve underage participants, only some do. Research has also indicated that this can potentially have a negative impact on the children involved. Being constantly surrounded by cameras can make children have doubts about their own right to privacy. Such an environment can also be a hindrance to a child’s normal development. Additionally, when competitive “reality” shows incorporate children, there is an added pressure and an immense sense of rejection when things don’t work out.

There are some who believe that children should nevertheless be encouraged to participate in such shows. Dr B A Dabla, a renowned sociologist, says, “what pulls the children to participate in reality shows is their live presentation and the curiosity element attached to it”.
“I personally don’t feel there is any harm in children participating in these shows, as long as it is acceptable in our society,” says DrDabla.“Shows like KaunBanegaCrorepati help one gain knowledge, and I encourage my own children to watch it.”

As of 2011, much of the programming found on the MTV family of networks or UTV Bindass fall under the “reality” category. These shows are specifically geared toward younger viewers. Kids are therefore likely to hear or see these shows being referenced during interactions with their peers, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will watch them. “The programs on MTV can potentially have a strong impact on the psyche of children. These shows present young viewers with role models. Children tend to copy their lifestyle, not knowing whether it’s right or wrong,” asserts Masart Ali, a schoolteacher.

Today, even the long-running children talent show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa is creating a fierce sense of competition in the participants, which some argue is not healthy. Children who watch such shows can get carried away, and there is a possibility that they may start sidelining what really matters—in an attempt to mimic their favorite singer in the competition. Vaseem Khan, a father of two says, “TV is known as the ‘idiot box’ for this very reason. When children are exposed to shows like these, they can really become addicted. These shows inculcate bad thoughts in the minds of children, and also disrupt their education.” Khan adds, “Reality shows definitely have an impact on children—I believe the ones featuring children should be banned.”

There is now a growing number of parents and psychologists who believe that these shows are highly exaggerated and quite manipulative. Many say these scripted “realities” are somehow responsible for disrupting the fabric of society, encouraging unhealthy competition, voyeurism and a sadistic sense of achievement. But despite the increasing criticism, these “reality” shows have become an integral part of our realities.

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