Is Reality TV Crossing the Line?

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When I was taking psychology 101 in university  I used to joke that they should use me as a guest subject. Perhaps it’s my experience with a variety of disorders that draws me to one of my guilty pleasures: TLC reality TV. I “enjoy” watching shows like Extreme Cheapskates, Extreme Couponing, My Strange Addiction, My Crazy Obsession and Hoarding: Buried Alive.

When I watch these shows I switch back and forth between being sympathetic and hopeful to being disgusted and sad. I understand why these shows gather a following- if they have enough shock value to surprise me, I can’t imagine what someone who doesn’t understand anxiety disorders or mental illness is thinking. From a business perspective these shows are gold. They don’t cost a lot of produce and they gain a following easily. But, this got me thinking about the moral side of it. Half of me thinks these shows are good for mental illness, while the other half thinks they are hitting the ethical rock bottom.

When I think about the lack of understanding and awareness that mental illness had just 10 years ago I am so grateful that things are changing. Even though these TLC shows are full of sensationalism and drama, any discussion about these issues brings them into the public eye. The viewers who do not understand get a glimpse into the lives of people who are different than them, and the viewers who suffer from their own issues get to see that they are not alone. Awareness, even if sensationalized, is better than ignorance. The first step to having a more comprehensive mental health system is to have people aware that these issues exist and that they are very real. I realize that these shows are edited and made to be as dramatic as possible, but in all honesty, how many people would watch a documentary on the subject?

On some of these shows, like My Strange Addiction and Hoarding, the people that they feature actually get professional help. So for these shows it’s a win-win. Many of the people on these shows have been unable to help themselves, whether it be lack of will power, lack of ability, or due to financial restraints. For some of them, having the ability to be on a show like this and get professional help must be the biggest blessing.

For others, seeing their behaviour displayed in such a public way is enough to elicit change. This can happen on even the smallest of scales. Just ask ; she is encouraged to do housework while watching shows like Hoarding. Seeing real life evidence of how bad things can get if you don’t stay on top of it can be an amazing motivator. After growing up with my dad who was a mild hoarder, I went from being very attached to material goods to someone who hates clutter. I have my days where I can’t bear to part with something that I perceive to be sentimental, but at the end of the day I know first hand what it’s like to face that anxiety blackhole and I do whatever I have to to avoid falling in.

These shows definitely have some positives, making me not feel so guilty for watching them. But, sometimes I look at them and all I see is misinformation and sensationalism. While I stand by my statement that talking about mental illness in any light is a good step in the right direction, if it’s done in a mocking way or it is full of misinformation it might be doing as much harm as it is good. Slapping the label of OCD or depression or anxiety on something that it is not runs the risk of confusing the public even more. OCD, for example, is far more than having things in order or turning the light switch on and off 5 times. These shows portray complex issues and for people to really start understanding, they have to be ingesting the right information. I think these shows get it right some of the time, maybe even most of the time, but there is a lot of room for improvement.

Then there is the emulation factor. How many people try to copy what they see on these shows? This is unlikely to be a problem for shows like Hoarding, but Extreme Cheapskates is a prime candidate. Here’s a short list from Money Crashers of some of the tactics used in the show and just how dangerous they are.

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Dumpster diving for a breast pump?

There are some interesting tips to be had by watching this show and many of the activities are relatively harmless (like bartering or reusing paper towels). However, when you start getting into activities like dumpster diving and picking up roadkill you run the risk of issues like bedbugs and food poisoning. I also find that the amount of money these participants claim to save is often over the top. The last thing you want is people thinking they can save lots of money by engaging in potentially dangerous activities.

Lastly, I feel bad for the friends and family of the people featured on these shows. You have kids who spend their free time cutting coupons, spouses who are not living the life they expected, and parents who worry that their child’s addiction to eating nail polish will kill them. It’s one thing to make choices for yourself, but few of us live in a bubble. When I see family and friends on this show I wonder if sensationalizing these behaviours is making it harder on them. No one wants to be embarrassed in public, especially not on national TV. Does it bring them support or ridicule or some combination of both? This is not a question I can personally answer.

I’m torn about these shows. I do enjoy watching them, but is the cost too high? There are clearly both positives and negatives, but what is the overall net result? What do you think?

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