Research Paper: Reality TV effects teens media literacy

Brenda Romero

Journ 2 T/ Th 5:23

Farideh Dada

Reality TV and its effect on teen’s media literacy

            Teens (ages 13 to 19) are the generation that is mostly likely to watch reality TV shows, and be effected by it in some way. Reality TV shows effect teen’s morality, ethics, media literacy, world views, and can correlate or cause violent behavior among others. According to Rodman (pg.5), media literacy is defined as “the ability to understand and make productive use of the media”. Do reality shows like Jersey Shore, Keeping up with the Kardashians, Buck Wild, and the Real world hinder or help teen’s media literacy? According to Barovick, reality TV was first created to get a perspective on an American family, but in 1992 producers started to produce cheap and easy reality fare to intrigue more viewers. The expectation for more viewers created the reality TV shows that teens are now being consumed by.

There is a big controversy regarding whether or not reality TV affects teen’s media literacy. Media literacy is the way the viewer takes the information given to them by a media outlet. Many argue that teens are more media literate and can decipher what is happening on TV than generations in the past. According to Bernstein, “young people today are exceptionally media literate and are quite used to observing, rating, and critiquing the personal stories that are spilling out of their televisions”, compared to generations in the past that had TV shows filled with moral stories or lectures at the end of the show. Personal example is being taught life lessons by watching Full house, The Cosby show, or even Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, regardless of their comedic backstory they always took the time at the end to make sure you knew what the moral of the story was. In reality shows now you really have to analyze and decipher for yourself what the producers or what the show is trying to tell us, according to Dworetzky “teens experience a collage that is either so real –or it’s doctored…” So it’s really up to them to really believe what they see. When I was a teen I still had a little bit of innocence’s to me, so if my 13 year old self was watching Real world on MTV, I would have thought, that is the way to act when you’re in your 20’s. That alone does not say that all teens believe what they see, Lisa Stein head of critical communications at SDSU believes that “TV young viewers today are media savvy… a big reason they watch TV programs is for the pure enjoyment of picking them apart later”. Even though they might not always get the message right, they are still thinking about the topic that was presented in the program, according to Bernstein, “they perceive themselves as participants, they can relate or condemn”. Having them process information then have it handed to them is much better in the long run because it creates a new system of opinions. We also have to keep in mind that not all teens think the same, Bernstein states, “some 13-14 year old may or may not see the difference in reality”, a teenage girl seeing the Bachelor may perceive the show in a positive romantic way and another might think that it is wrong for a guy to hook up with all those girls. Now with teens being so media savvy and wanting to discuss how ridiculous or how great the show was has had a tie in with social media. According to Donnelly, reality TV in general has helped make teens more media literate by incorporating a media outlet where they can express their thoughts, like twitter, Facebook, or comments on YouTube. Reality TV is not always good for teens but it does get them discussing and critically thinking about what had accord on the latest episode, regardless if they got the real concept down.

Teenagers that are not media literate don’t know how to decipher reality from the reality show, hindering their morality and ethics. According to Dworetzky, “we anchor our perception in our own point of view”, but that is a real problem when dealing with teenagers that are so easily influenced by the world around them. They might already have their set opinion on a certain topic of a show but as soon as someone else disagrees with them, they are likely to take the other persons side because they may not want to be seen as uncool. Reality TV also plays with the language and the actions that some teenagers carry on, Bernstein explains that, “profanity, sexual references, rudeness, and shocking behavior”, is what you see dished out on reality TV shows and is cater exclusively to teens. Teens are still learning and their brains are like sponges so they are still going to absorb everything they see or hear. Reality shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians and the Jersey Shore are filled with sexual content and explicit language that teens see and then later carry out. They may think that just because their favorite TV personality carelessly calls out someone it is ok for them to do the same. There is another topic of concern when teens are watching these explicit shows, will they imitate what is happening in their favorite show, according to Bernstein many teens say “just because it’s must-see TV… it doesn’t mean must-imitate TV”. Some teens will watch an episode of the Kardashian, partying it up in Miami and hooking up with random stranger and immediately think wow that is not right. Other teens might think wow look at how fearless and confident they are just going up to that cute boy maybe I can do the same .  Parents are most concerned that their teen will be intrigued by the glamorization of partying, sex, and the praise in the vulgar language used in these shows, that it will be easy for them to fall into a bad road. Producers of these shows might blame teen’s morality and ethics on bad parenting but Bernstein argues that reality TV “is like having your teen’s most troubling friend hanging out, cursing, and smoking in your living”. Even if you kick that friend out your teen is still going to find a way to keep in contact with this friend behind your back.

Reality TV Shows that claim to be educational can really lead to stereotyping and violence because teens are yet not fully educated about the world around them. There are many shows like Sister Wives, Breaking Amish, Buck Wild, Honey Booboo and others, that are supposed to show you the lives of these groups of individuals. But because of wanting to gain many viewers, producers just show you what they want, like the drama and humility of these people. According to Dworetzky, “teens today see a world of jump cuts between easy 22- minute solutions…” This can give the viewer a small glimpse of the actual truth and distorted truth. Many teens take what they see on an episode of Buck wild and immediately assume that all people from the Deep South act just how these individuals act. This can lead to stereotyping and bullying someone just because they are from this certain region even though they act completely different. There are other shows that show people from different parts of the world and if you never actually learned or heard about this demographic then you might immediately think that whatever this particular show is showing you is actually true. If you do know that you shouldn’t take into account everything that the show is showing then you can use some concepts as tools for learning. Bernstein also discussed how Dellasega found evidence that reality shows like Americas Next Top Model has had a cultural shift among teen girls. These shows bring out the competitive side among girls; they constantly show these women openly bashing one another to make it to the top. Teenage girls are taking this and using it in real life and thinking it’s okay to talk down to one another instead of supporting one another. Reality TV shows that are made for educational purposes should not be viewed in that way because in the forms that they are doctored to just show what can get the most views.

All in all, teens in this day in age are said to be more media literate because they have to decipher what is happening instead of being spoon fed the actual message. Teens are also more media savvy which helps their media literacy because they have more outlets to express their concerns. Reality shows don’t have the best morality leading some teens to misinterpret information.


Bernstein, M (2008). Does Reality TV for teens induce bad behavior?

Donnelly, K. (2008). Youth Participation and Media Literacy on Simile8(1), 1-11. doi:10.3138/sim.8.1.003

Dworetzky, T. (1992). Teens: Will TV become their virtual (and only) reality?. Omni14(12), 16.

Rodman, G. R. (2012). Chapter 1 Media Literacy . Mass media in a changing world ; history, industry, controversy (4th ed., pp. 5-9). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill :.

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